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Four local properties to be scanned for lost cemeteries this month

There are two sites in Clearwater, another on MacDill Air Force Base and a fourth on an Odessa horse ranch.
Ground penetrating radar was used find the erased Zion Cemetery on property along North Florida Avenue. The same technology is now being used to search for lost graves throughout the Tampa Bay area. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Ground penetrating radar was used find the erased Zion Cemetery on property along North Florida Avenue. The same technology is now being used to search for lost graves throughout the Tampa Bay area. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Feb. 3
Updated Feb. 3

TAMPA — February will be the busiest month yet in the search for lost black cemeteries across the Tampa Bay area.

Archaeologists will visit four sites that might still contain graves.

It begins on Thursday when the private archaeology firm Cardno rolls ground-penetrating radar across a vacant piece of Pinellas County School District property on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, said school district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas.

Related: Potential Clearwater cemetery puts affordable housing project on hold

Records indicate that in 1954, the remains of some 350 people were moved from a cemetery on that site to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin to make way for a city pool and a new school. Still, the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP called for a survey of the property to make sure that unmarked graves were not left behind.

Related: Records show a black cemetery might lie beneath MacDill Air Force Base

Then, on Feb. 18, private archaeology firm New South Associates and two cadaver-sniffing dogs will explore a wooded area on MacDill Air Force Base, according to a MacDill news release. Historic documents show the Port Tampa Cemetery for African Americans was once located there.

The early 20th century cemetery disappeared when the base was built. No one knows whether the bodies were moved.

Next, on Feb. 29, the Florida Public Archaeology Network says it will use ground-penetrating radar to search for graves under a paved parking lot and a building at the FrankCrum Staffing Clearwater campus, 100 S Missouri Ave.

The St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery for African Americans was located there through the 1950s. It was also moved to the Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin but those who grew up near the burial ground say any unmarked graves were left behind.

Based on oral history, archaeologists previously searched an adjoining vacant lot, also owned by FrankCrum Staffing, but found records at the time indicating the cemetery was next door.

Related: Headstones in a lake? On an Odessa farm, signs of a forgotten black cemetery.

And near the end of February, University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle says she will use ground-penetrating radar to learn whether graves from the Keystone Cemetery for African Americans remain on land that is now an Odessa horse ranch.

Former residents of the area say the headstones were moved but the bodies remain in the ground.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

The search for lost African American cemeteries began with a special report in June by the Tampa Bay Times, revealing the existence of Zion Cemetery along the 3700 block of N Florida Ave. The Times questioned whether graves were moved before buildings went up there starting in 1929 and archaeologists later confirmed that hundreds still remain.

Soon after, the Hillsborough County School District announced that archaeologists found the forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown beneath a corner of the King High School campus.

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