CLEARWATER ― In 1955, unable to pay city fees assessed to their segregation-era Black cemetery, St. Matthews Baptist Church agreed to sell it to a trio of businessmen.
The community has said they were told the graves would be relocated.
Nearly seven decades later, it appears few were.
On Wednesday, archaeologists with the firm Stantec announced that ground-penetrating radar has discovered at least 328 graves remain under St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery’s 2½-acre footprint, which now includes FrankCrum human resources consulting firm at 100 S Missouri Ave. and the neighboring strip of Missouri Avenue.
In 2020, Stantec announced that ground-penetrating radar discovered 70 graves on a portion of that site they surveyed.
Stantec returned to roll ground-penetrating radar across the rest of the cemetery’s open property in April and May and discovered the other 258, according to a report provided to the Tampa Bay Times by the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP.
There are likely more graves. Records show at least 553 people were buried there.
The report notes “21 areas of interest” where the data was inconclusive.
Other graves could be under a portion of the FrankCrum building that could not be surveyed, “although the overlap is likely only enough space for two north-south grave rows,” Stantec’s report says.
The detected graves on the FrankCrum property are under a paved parking lot and entry courtyard.
“The community was told back then that the bodies would be moved,” said Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP. “It seems the community was lied to.”
Matt Crum, co-president of FrankCrum, is traveling and could not be reached for comment.
“It really is too soon to tell what will happen at the Crum location or under Missouri Avenue,” a spokesperson for the city of Clearwater said. “The city manager would like to start by having meetings with the community and the heirs of the individuals buried at the location.”
Barbara Sorey-Love, who led the charge to have that property surveyed for graves, knows what she wants.
“It is still a cemetery — period,” said Sorey-Love, who has no family buried there but has friends who do. “That road should be closed. All the cemetery land should be treated like a memorial site.”
As a child growing up in Clearwater Heights, Sorey-Love, now 70, said she was told marked graves were moved but unmarked ones were left behind because there was no way to locate those back then. But, after the report was released, she wonders if marked ones were ignored, too.
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“A dozen descendants have come forward who have said their family is still on the FrankCrum property,” she said. “No one has come forward and said their family was moved.”
It is one of six Black cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area with graves that, in recent years, archaeology surveys confirmed have been erased or forgotten and then built over. Another five sites have been identified as likely locations but have not yet been surveyed.
St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery was built in 1909 and part of Clearwater Heights, a since-razed Black community.
In 1954, the cemetery was assessed $1,251.07 by the city for the pavement and another $619.70 for sewer lines along 330 feet of land fronting Missouri Avenue.
The following year, the church sold the cemetery for $15,000 to Milton D. Jones, Chester B. McMullen Jr. and T. R. Hudd, who owned Parklawn Memorial Cemetery for Black burials in Dunedin.
The sales deed does not reference the property as a cemetery. The Times has not found evidence of a promise to move the bodies.
And “no documents record such a move, but a review of headstones currently located in Parklawn shows 11 headstones that correspond with names of people who were likely originally buried at the St Matthews Cemetery,” says a previous report issued by Stantec in October 2021.
This week’s report says there is no obvious evidence that graves were ever moved.
The property later became a Montgomery Ward department store and then the city of Clearwater’s Public Services Department. IMR Global erected the campus sold to FrankCrum in 2004.
“There was a lot of construction on that property over the years,” Atkinson said. “And no one ever found anything?”
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.