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How Tampa Bay’s lost cemeteries impact those who own the land

The FrankCrum company was going to build an addition on their Clearwater campus until they learned the property has graves.
Archaeologists with Cardno, Rebecca O’Sullivan, left, and Eric Prendergast, work to sift through sand while working to confirm ground-penetrating radar results which indicated 70 graves from where Clearwater's black St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery were located at the FrankCrum staffing firm property at Missouri Avenue and Pierce Street in Clearwater.
Archaeologists with Cardno, Rebecca O’Sullivan, left, and Eric Prendergast, work to sift through sand while working to confirm ground-penetrating radar results which indicated 70 graves from where Clearwater's black St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery were located at the FrankCrum staffing firm property at Missouri Avenue and Pierce Street in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published Mar. 12
Updated Mar. 12

CLEARWATER — The FrankCrum company was going to celebrate 40 years in business in 2021 by unveiling plans to build an addition on their Clearwater campus at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

That plan changed on Thursday when archaeologists confirmed that graves from the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery — supposedly moved in the 1950s — were on the portion of the property where the addition was to be constructed.

The discovery of lost graves from five long gone cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area over the last two years is a step toward closure for families whose loved ones are among the forgotten — and for civil rights activists who say it is not a coincidence that four of the cemeteries were for Black residents and the fifth had nearly all Black burials.

But the discoveries bring new problems for those who own the properties that archaeologists and activists say should again be called cemeteries.

“We’re scratching our heads over how this could happen,” said Matt Crum, co-president of FrankCrum, which purchased the Clearwater land in 2004. “Now we need to consider our options.”

The red squares in this overlay map created by the Florida Public Archaeology Network indicate graves on the FrankCrum campus.
The red squares in this overlay map created by the Florida Public Archaeology Network indicate graves on the FrankCrum campus. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

Archaeologists confirmed that at least 70 graves from the Black cemetery are on the FrankCrum property, but there are likely more. They only surveyed half an acre of the cemetery’s 2½-acre footprint.

Around the corner from FrankCrum, on unused Pinellas County School District land at the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, there are at least 55 graves from an unnamed Black cemetery that was also supposed to be completely moved in the 1950s.

The school district was going to lease a parcel of that land to the Homeless Empowerment Program for affordable housing units.

“Those plans are now on hold until we have further discussions,” said Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP. “We need community input. Hopefully we can come up with a plan that is a win-win for all parties involved.”

Richard Gonzmart planned to develop a culinary school on the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. in Tampa to provide careers for people from that low-income area. It was then discovered that his land is home to a portion of Zion Cemetery, which was erased a century ago when the headstones were removed while more than 800 graves remained.

Gonzmart has agreed to sell that land to a nonprofit once they raise the capital. It will create and manage a memorial park honoring the Black cemetery.

St. Petersburg might also have a lost cemetery impeding development plans.

Twelve of the 86 acres that make up the Tropicana Field site slated for redevelopment in the coming years were once home to Oaklawn Cemetery. It was moved in the mid-20th century, but some believe bodies are still under its footprint.

“We are preparing to execute a contract with a firm now who will determine the status of whether or not there is a cemetery on the site,” said Benjamin Kirby, spokesman to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “We expect to know this, and take the appropriate next steps as necessary, well before any developer would begin work on the site.

This overlay of a 1923 map onto a modern one shows the location of three of St. Petersburg's earliest cemeteries. Oaklawn Cemetery was located where Tropicana Field's parking lots 1 and 2 now sit. The footprint other two, Evergreen Cemetery and the St. Petersburg Cemetery, also known as Moffett Cemetery, are under I-275.
This overlay of a 1923 map onto a modern one shows the location of three of St. Petersburg's earliest cemeteries. Oaklawn Cemetery was located where Tropicana Field's parking lots 1 and 2 now sit. The footprint other two, Evergreen Cemetery and the St. Petersburg Cemetery, also known as Moffett Cemetery, are under I-275. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

FrankCrum’s issues go beyond redevelopment. A portion of the professional employer organization company’s 350-spot parking lot sits overtop the cemetery.

The Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP is requesting that the lot is closed out of respect for those buried there.

“We’re not trying to disrupt his business,” Atkinson said. “There is a large dirt lot behind it they can use.”

Crum does not think it is safe for his 340 employees to walk through the dirt lot, especially when it rains.

“We will have discussions with the city and the community to see what options there are,” Crum said.

One option is to move the bodies to a cemetery. Crum and Atkinson said that possibility has not yet been discussed.

The FrankCrum headquarters in Clearwater is located at 100 South Missouri Ave.
The FrankCrum headquarters in Clearwater is located at 100 South Missouri Ave. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Crum’s situation is further complicated because a portion of his existing building is on the cemetery’s footprint.

So, if the company one day relocates, it would be difficult to sell that structure, Tampa land use attorney David Mechanik said.

Mechanik represented the developers of the Amalie Arena in the 1990s when, during construction, they discovered four military graves dating to when that property was home to Fort Brooke. The human remains were moved to Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery.

With the number of graves found at these cemeteries over the last two years, Mechanik said, “if I was representing a perspective buyer, I would advise them not to buy the properties. It is a major issue to deal with and a public process, not just a decision a private developer makes on their own.”

The FrankCrum campus totals 14 acres. Losing the 2½ acres where the cemetery is located will hurt the value of the land, Crum said.

They purchased it for $13.9 million from IMR Global, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s website.

“We’re going to work for the city in good faith and hopefully we can come to a resolution,” Crum said.

When asked what he would like from the city, Crum said, “I honestly don’t know.”