CLEARWATER ― There is one less abandoned historic Black cemetery in the Tampa Bay area.
Last month, the Pinellas County Sixth Judicial Circuit Court granted ownership of Clearwater’s Whispering Souls African American Cemetery to a nonprofit comprised of volunteers who, in recent years, have cared for the burial ground.
“This is a time to celebrate,” said Jacqueline Hayes, president of the Whispering Souls African American Cemetery Inc. nonprofit. “We’ve saved the cemetery.”
Her grandfather, Charles Smith, once served as secretary of the cemetery’s ownership group, a Black fraternal organization called the St. Paul Home Helping Hand Society.
In 1953, the society deeded the cemetery at 2698 South Dr. to “The Safety Harbor Colored Community.”
“They thought they were doing the right thing,” Hayes said. “They thought that’s how they could give it back to the community.”
Instead, the vague deed left the cemetery without a specific owner tasked with upkeep of the property that measures just under an acre. It was abandoned.
Still, it survived an era when historic Black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area were being erased. Five have been rediscovered in recent years and there is an ongoing search for others.
In Tampa, Memorial Park Cemetery was abandoned when the owner died in 2019. The city is maintaining the 20-acre Black cemetery until a nonprofit can be formed to take over ownership.
“Why did Whispering Souls remain?” asked Lou Claudio, a member of the nonprofit. “That might forever be the great unknown.”
Developers built around Whispering Souls. It is neighbored by homes on three sides. On the fourth side is a road with more homes across the street.
“The locals know it is here, but that’s about it,” said Laura Kepner, author of A Brief History of Safety Harbor. “When people come looking for it and pull into the neighborhood, they think they are lost.”
In the late 1800s, Pinellas County’s pioneering McMullen family owned orange grove property that included Whispering Souls, which was then known as the Safety Harbor Colored Cemetery.
According to the nonprofit, in 1902 the land was sold to the pioneering Coachman family. They lost the groves in 1928 due to unpaid real estate taxes.
In 1944, Alfred Ehle acquired the land and later gave the cemetery to the St. Paul Home Helping Hand Society, which then deeded it, vaguely, to the Black community.
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Over time, residents either forgot about the cemetery or did not have the means to care for it.
Claudio learned of its existence in 1997, when the American Legion sponsored a cleanup “based on their awareness that veterans are buried in the cemetery,” he said. “But I kept thinking we need to do more for it.”
Hayes returned to the area from Boston in 2014. She met Claudio while speaking at a history program about her grandfather’s significance as a leader in the Black community.
“Lou said he had been trying for years to get somebody to help clean up the cemetery,” Hayes said. “He needed my help organizing people.”
Before the group of around 40 volunteers began regular cleanups, neighbor Tonya Barber said the foliage was so thick that none of the markers were visible. She was unaware the property was even a cemetery when she purchased her home 20 years ago.
“The weeds and grass were to here,” said Barber, motioning to her chin. “That’s how bad it was. This looks fabulous today.”
Barber then began serving as the cemetery’s unofficial security guard.
“If I catch anyone disrespecting it, I chase them away,” she said.
Ground-penetrating radar discovered that at least 130 people are buried in Whispering Souls, but there are only 20 visible markers. The earliest marker dates to 1896 and the most recent to 1973.
Hayes’ grandmother, Amanda Smith, still has a marker. Her grandfather’s marker went missing during the cemetery’s years of abandonment.
The volunteers formed the nonprofit in 2019 and renamed the cemetery based on the belief that they could hear the souls whispering in support of their effort.
Around a year ago, they began proceedings to assume ownership. The Tampa Bay Times supported the cause by donating the required legal advertisements.
“This is the end of one chapter and the start of a new chapter,” Hayes said. “Now, we have to make sure the cemetery never falls into bad shape again.”