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Over 500 graves might be on Clearwater company’s land. Is city responsible?

The Black cemetery was supposedly moved in the 1950s. An archaeological report questions that belief.
Archaeologists Mary Maisel, left, and Erin McKendry, with Cardno, excavate sand in March while working to confirm graves from Clearwater's erased St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery.
Archaeologists Mary Maisel, left, and Erin McKendry, with Cardno, excavate sand in March while working to confirm graves from Clearwater's erased St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 8, 2021

CLEARWATER ― The 70 graves found on the FrankCrum company’s campus were initially announced to have been unmarked burials accidentally left behind when St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery was moved decades ago.

A recently released archaeological report questions that belief.

It’s possible that the Black cemetery was never moved, according to the report, and more than 500 graves are still at 100 S Missouri Ave.

So, last week, the Clearwater City Council approved spending $48,223 to survey the rest of the cemetery’s 2½-acre footprint, which they once owned. So far, half an acre has been surveyed.

But this might not be the city’s last allocation toward the effort if those with a stake in the cemetery have their way.

On Sunday, the stakeholders released a list of “community wants” that includes the city funding a memorial on the site and moving the graves to a cemetery.

“I’m all for these extra funds” for the additional survey, council member Mark Bunker said during a work-session discussion held a few days prior to the 4-0 vote approving the expense. Mayor Frank Hibbard abstained.

Bunker said the city council must decide who is responsible for what ultimately happens at the site and for how much of that the city must pay. Council member Hoyt Hamilton agreed.

“I don’t have a problem with spending money to get a final scientific technical reading of this property,” he said during the work-session discussion. “Beyond that, I am not sure.”

Via email, Matt Crum, co-president of FrankCrum, said that in 1998, when the city sold the 14 acres that included the cemetery land to the Clearwater Redevelopment Agency, they did so with a development agreement that stated all the burials had been relocated.

Crum said his company relied on the validity of that agreement when they purchased the land from IMR Global in 2004.

The Tampa Bay Times has not independently verified the existence of that development agreement.

Related: IN SEARCH OF LOST CEMETERIES: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on forgotten and erased Black cemeteries.

Bodies still being on the property, Crum said, violates the city’s “warranty agreement,” which is a “promise, assurance or statement made by the warrantor regarding the accuracy of specific facts or the condition, quality, quantity, or nature of a property. In this case the city represented that the property was free of burials.”

Crum added that he “is confident that the city will honor their representation and warranty that it made with respect to the property.”

The city could be liable for damages if a court agrees they violated the warranty agreement.

The FrankCrum company paid for the initial half-acre that was surveyed with ground-penetrating radar in 2020.

The city then paid for archaeologists to physically confirm the radar findings in 2021. Including the money approved for the next survey, the city has so far allocated $136,111.

Each red square marks a St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery grave that has been discovered so far with ground-penetrating radar.
Each red square marks a St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery grave that has been discovered so far with ground-penetrating radar. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]
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The areas where there are known graves are currently under a parking lot. The company had planned to add onto its campus there, but the discovery of the cemetery has put a stop to those plans.

A sliver of the cemetery is located under a FrankCrum building. That also cannot be disturbed, making it more difficult to sell the structure one day.

Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, said that Cardno, the private archaeological firm that is leading the survey and compiled the report, “does not recommend moving the bodies.”

Doing so would be difficult and expensive, said Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. “It could cost up to several thousand dollars per grave.”

The stakeholders’ list of “community wants” was compiled by the Clearwater African American Memorial Cemeteries Committee, which is made up of historians, civil rights activists, those who had ancestors buried in St. Matthews Cemetery and those who grew up in that area when it was known as Clearwater Heights, the city’s first Black neighborhood.

Another of their requests is for the city and the Pinellas County Schools to fund “a state-of-the-art memorial, museum and education center” on the former site of the North Greenwood Cemetery on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, where 55 graves were discovered last year.

That cemetery’s 1½-acre footprint spreads across unused land owned by Pinellas County Schools and a neighboring parcel owned by the Homeless Empowerment Program.

Atkinson said that is what the community group would like, but there have been no formal discussions with the city or school district.

The red outline indicates the boundaries of St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery, which was located on property now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S Missouri Ave. The yellow areas indicate where archaeologists scanned for bodies.
The red outline indicates the boundaries of St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery, which was located on property now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S Missouri Ave. The yellow areas indicate where archaeologists scanned for bodies. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

News archives show that more than 350 bodies were relocated from North Greenwood to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin in 1954. The graves still there are said to have been unmarked ones accidentally left behind.

St. Matthews was also supposedly moved to Parklawn, but there is no documented proof that occurred, according to the report.

Cardno compiled a list of 553 people known to have been buried at St. Matthews. The archaeological firm then searched for those names in Parklawn. They found 11.

“Given that small number, it is probable that the majority of the burials still remain at St. Matthews,” says the report. It adds that those 11 burials found in Parklawn “might have been moved during the paving and widening of Missouri Avenue in 1954.”

That paving project led to the demise of the cemetery established in 1909, according to the report.

St. Matthews Baptist Church, which owned the cemetery, was assessed by the city “$1,251.07 for the pavement and another $619.70 for sewer along 330 feet of the cemetery fronting Missouri Avenue,” the report says.

“A St Petersburg Times article from October 20, 1954, reported that the City Commission saw the paving project as a way to continue segregationist housing practices within the city. By improving and paving roads in African American neighborhoods, Commission members hoped that it would be an ‘inducement to confine Negro home building and purchasing to the existing area.’ ”

In 1955, unable to pay the fees and with interest mounting, the church sold the land to Milton D. Jones, Chester B. McMullen Jr. and T. R. Hudd, who promised to move the cemetery.

A Montgomery Ward department store was built on the site. In the 1970s, the city of Clearwater’s Public Services Department took over that building as an administrative building.

Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, who worked for the Public Services Department at the time, previously told the Times that the city was aware bodies were still there. It’s why they did not install phone lines, he said.

IMR later demolished that building and erected the campus now used by FrankCrum.

According to the report, IMR did not find bodies during construction.

“It wasn’t until 2019, when the Clearwater Heights community began researching the possibility that burials had been left here, that the Crum family became aware that the city’s representations were not accurate,” Crum said. “We’ve experienced great cooperation from the city as well as collaboration with our local community groups. So, I’m very optimistic that all parties genuinely share a common goal to do the right thing.”

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