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Archaeologists begin search for African American graves in Clearwater

Marked graves were moved in the 1950s, records show. But unmarked graves may have been left behind.

CLEARWATER — Barbara Sorey-Love founded the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee in 2016 to bring together people who once lived in the long-ago razed neighborhood.

She figured they’d gather for barbecues and tell tales of their childhoods in Clearwater Heights.

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

But among stories of ball games and sleepovers, her former neighbors brought up the cemetery they remember there.

Marked graves were moved in the 1950s, records show. But their elders told them that unmarked graves were left behind.

“We wanted to know the truth,” said Sorey-Love, 68. “We’ll get it soon.”

Inspired in part by the neighborhood committee, the Florida Public Archaeology Network on Tuesday began scanning for graves with ground penetrating radar at the former cemetery site near the corner of Madison Avenue and Gould Street.

Today, the property is part of a two-acre vacant lot on FrankCrum Staffing’s Clearwater campus at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

Related: Clearwater might also have a lost African American cemetery

The archaeologists looking for the Clearwater Heights cemetery were among the same ones who discovered Tampa’s Zion Cemetery. The segregation-era all-black cemetery was established in 1901, built over beginning in 1929 and forgotten until June when the Tampa Bay Times questioned what became of it and those buried there.

A different team of archaeologists later found Ridgewood Cemetery for the poor and indigent on a corner of Tampa’s King High School campus. Most of those buried there were African Americans.

“It is a sad part of our history that we have to search out and resolve," said Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP.

Still, Atkinson pointed out, at least Zion and Ridgewood left a paper trail through news archives, maps, land deeds, city directories and government records.

No one has yet found a mention of the Clearwater Heights cemetery in written records

It didn’t even have a formal name, Sorey-Love said, known only as the Clearwater Heights Negro or colored cemetery.

Former Clearwater Heights resident Ruth Rembert previously told the Times that her grandfather, Jefferson Rembert, was buried there in 1930 and is among those left behind.

She has since acquired a copy of his death certificate, Sorey-Love said, and it does not mention a burial ground.

The absence of records shows how little the city thought of the black residents of Clearwater Heights, Atkinson said.

“Let us hope that the city did the right thing and we find nothing here,” Atkinson said. “I hope that this community’s questions get answered and this error can be put to rest.”