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Grave markers found at the former site of a Black cemetery in Clearwater

It was previously believed that only unmarked graves were left behind when the cemetery was moved in 1954.
Erin McKendry, 40, a staff archeologist with Cardno, left, speaks with a Tampa Bay Times reporter as Ryan Harke, 35, an archeologist with Florida Public Archeology Network, right, during the excation of what was once an unnamed Black cemetery. This grave is among those with a casket and a marker.
Erin McKendry, 40, a staff archeologist with Cardno, left, speaks with a Tampa Bay Times reporter as Ryan Harke, 35, an archeologist with Florida Public Archeology Network, right, during the excation of what was once an unnamed Black cemetery. This grave is among those with a casket and a marker. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Feb. 11

CLEARWATER — The story of the Black cemetery on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street has long gone like this: To make room for a city pool and Pinellas High School, the remains of around 350 people were moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin in 1954. But unmarked graves were left behind because there was no way for gravediggers to find them.

A year ago, as part of the Tampa Bay area’s ongoing search for lost Black cemeteries, ground penetrating radar detected caskets on the property.

For the last two weeks archaeologists from Cardno, a firm hired by the city of Clearwater, worked to physically confirm the radar’s data by excavating that area.

Caskets are there, the archaeologists said, but that is not all they found.

Some of the graves had markers buried beneath the earth.

“It’s a head scratcher,” archaeologist Erin McKendry said.

With excavation work now complete, Cardno will study their data to learn why some in marked graves were left behind, too.

Unnamed when it was an active cemetery, it is now referred to as the “North Greenwood Cemetery” after its surrounding neighborhood.

Ground penetrating radar discovered 55 of what archaeologists refer to as “grave-like anomalies” on the former cemetery’s 1½-acre footprint that today spreads across now-unused land owned by the Pinellas County School District and a neighboring parcel owned by the Homeless Empowerment Program.

The red square shows the boundaries of the Black cemetery once located on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street in Clearwater.
The red square shows the boundaries of the Black cemetery once located on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street in Clearwater. [ Courtesy of Cardno ]
Related: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on forgotten Black cemeteries.

There could be more graves under a vacant school building, Kendry said. Detected anomolies lead right up to its edge. Radar did not find any under the road that separates the two parcels.

The physical confirmation of the radar’s findings is a process called “ground truthing” during which archaeologists carefully peel away layers of earth until they reach the soil stain of a buried coffin. So far, they did around 30 of the radar’s anomalies.

The archaeologists then dug further into the ground at the site of one anomaly to confirm the stain belongs to a coffin.

“We’re pretty confident this one does” have a casket, Kendry said while pointing to a grave. Cardno will say for certain in their report to the city.

That grave is among those with a marker. The stone was too worn away to detect if there was ever writing on it.

Kendry said they found a few graves with markers.

The Tampa Bay Times saw one with four concrete corner posts.

A stone that most likely marked a grave site is seen during an excavation near what used to be Pinellas High School on Wednesday.
A stone that most likely marked a grave site is seen during an excavation near what used to be Pinellas High School on Wednesday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

There are innocent explanations for why marked graves were left behind, Kendry said.

For instance, the markers could have sunk so deep into the earth that they were hidden in 1954. This possibility is likely if the markers are at the same depth as neighboring unmarked caskets, Kendry said. The archaeologists measured the depth of each and will report their findings to the city.

News archives from 1954 say those charged with moving the cemetery were paid per grave. So, if they left caskets behind, they would have left money behind, Kendry said.

Other items were discovered during the excavation, such as jewelry and coins dating to the early 1940s. Enough coins were unearthed overtop grave shafts, Kendry said, that she thinks they were burial offerings.

They also found an aluminum grave marker for William Ridley in an area where coffins were removed in 1954. Ridley died in 1951.

All items will be placed back where they were found and then reburied.

Kerri Klein, 30, an archeologist with Cardno, displays a gravesite marker that was uncovered while archeologists excavated near what used to be Pinellas High School.
Kerri Klein, 30, an archeologist with Cardno, displays a gravesite marker that was uncovered while archeologists excavated near what used to be Pinellas High School. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

This is the second time in the last year that Cardno has looked for caskets in an area once belonging to a Black cemetery.

In June, they physically confirmed coffins from Tampa’s early-20th century Zion Cemetery on land that today contains five vacant Robles Park Village apartment buildings owned by the Tampa Housing Authority.

Overall, it is believed that there are more than 800 caskets still in the ground across Zion’s 2½ acre footprint that is also home to warehouse property and a tow lot.

Zion’s headstones were removed but the bodies remained in the ground when that land was first developed in in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Next up for Cardno will be to ground truth another Clearwater cemetery site.

In June, the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s ground penetrating radar detected 70 “grave-like anomalies” belonging to the 2½ acre St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery. That Black cemetery was also moved to Parklawn in 1954 and the land is now a parking lot for the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

It has also long been said that only St. Matthew’s unmarked graves were left behind.