CLEARWATER — Those who grew up in the community of Clearwater Heights were raised on the rumor that unmarked graves were not exhumed when the all-black St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery was moved in the 1950s.
That rumor appears to be fact.
In February, archaeologists rolled ground penetrating radar across the site of the former cemetery, now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.
The Tampa Bay Times obtained the results of that survey from the state of Florida on Tuesday.
Archaeologists detected 70 “possible graves” that are still there. The radar detected objects that are the shape and depth of graves located on land that was once a cemetery.
Still, archaeologists typically classify such findings as “possible graves” or “grave-like objects” until they can dig into the earth to verify the radar’s data.
When asked if they are graves, Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network that led the survey, said “The likelihood is very, very, very high.”
And there could be more graves there.
Archaeologists only investigated a fifth of the cemetery’s 2½-acre footprint, according to Moates.
What’s more, while most of that land is a parking lot, a portion of a building also sits on it. Ground penetrating radar cannot scan through the structure’s floor and foundation.
The FrankCrum company, which provides services for businesses, such as staffing, payroll and human resources, said it had no comment on the discovery.
Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, said FrankCrum has been supportive of this effort to look for the lost graves.
“They are not at fault,” Atkinson said. "They did not know.”
Atkinson said he will lead a community meeting in the near future to decide what steps should be taken next.
“What’s important is we now recognize that property for what it is — a cemetery,” Atkinson said. “We recognize it. The property owner recognizes it. The state recognizes it.”
This marks for the fourth time in the last year that graves from a lost Tampa Bay area cemetery have been discovered. Three of those cemeteries were all-black. The fourth was mostly-black.
Clearwater Heights was an African American community established in the early 1900s, roughly bounded by Cleveland Street to the north, Court Street to the south, Ewing Avenue to the west and Missouri Avenue to the east.
The cemetery was created in 1909 by St. Matthews Baptist Church, according to a deed filed when Clearwater was still part of Hillsborough County. The church still operates a mile away at 703 Seminole St.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
City records from 1954 indicate that the church cemetery owed Clearwater around $2,000 for road and sewer improvements and was in danger of losing the property.
In May of the following year, according to a sales deed filed in Pinellas County, the church sold the land for $15,000.
According to the archaeology report, by then, the cemetery was deemed unsuitable for future burials and was possibly full.
The men who bought it — Chester McMullen, Milton Jones and T.R. Hudd — owned Parklawn Memorial Cemetery for African Americans in Dunedin and, according to former Clearwater Heights residents, moved the bodies there.
Still, former residents have said, many graves did not have headstones. Those people were raised on the story that graves were left behind.
The land would become home to a Montgomery Ward department store that was later converted into an administrative building for Clearwater’s Public Services Department. Those structures were demolished so IMR Global could build a campus there in 1998. FrankCrum purchased that campus in 2004 without knowledge that bodies might still be there.
Clearwater Heights ceased to exist in the 1980s.
Three years ago, Barbara Sorey-Love founded the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee, which brings former neighborhood residents together.
She thought members would reminisce about the good times, but the cemetery was often the focus of conversations. They were hesitant to step forward, worried the claim would seem unbelievable.
Then in June 2019, the Times wrote a report questioning if the all-black segregation-era Zion Cemetery was still located under Tampa’s Robles Park Village and its neighboring properties. Archaeologists later confirmed at least 300 graves were still there, but believe nearly all the 800 buried there remain in the ground.
The reunion committee then went public about St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery’s unmarked graves.
“When I was growing up, people were always talking about the graves," Sorey-Love, who was raised in Clearwater Heights, said. “It was part of our history that has finally been confirmed. But I’d like to know what’s on the other two acres” that have not been scanned.
Since then, two other lost cemeteries have been discovered.
First, 145 graves from Ridgewood Cemetery were located on the campus of Tampa’s King High School. Archaeologists believe all 250 once buried there remain in the ground. The mid-20th century burial ground was for the indigent. Records show that nearly everyone buried there was black.
And 44 graves from an unnamed early-20th century all-black cemetery were found on vacant land on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street now owned by the Pinellas County School District. That burial ground was also moved to Parklawn in the 1950s, but the unmarked graves were again left behind.
“The truth has come out,” Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, a former resident of Clearwater Heights, said. “We have had this mystery for years. Now we can move on to properly memorialize those who were left behind.”