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The lost Clearwater Heights black cemetery might be under a building

Archaeologists were scanning a vacant lot for bodies until an old city record pointed them to an adjacent property.
Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the location of what he believed to be a former African American cemetery next to the parking lot of FrankCrum Staffing, 100 S Missouri Ave. in Clearwater. Now, it appears the cemetery may have been on an adjacent lot where the building stands. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

CLEARWATER — Archaeologists spent last week looking for lost graves from a black cemetery once located on what is today a vacant lot on FrankCrum Staffing’s Clearwater campus at 100 S Missouri Ave.

But ground-penetrating radar hasn’t yet found signs of bodies left behind or evidence that a cemetery had ever been there.

That might be because they were searching in the wrong spot.

The cemetery might have been located on FrankCrum’s adjoining lot, home to a piece of a building and a paved parking lot.

Related: Archaeologists begin search for African American graves in Clearwater

The Florida Public Archaeology Network surveyed the vacant land but then found a city of Clearwater record from Nov. 15, 1954, indicating that the “St. Matthews Baptist Church Negro Cemetery” was on the eastern half of Lot 1 of the Padgett Subdivision, the name of the area.

It was the first written record of the cemetery to be discovered.

The archaeologists overlayed a plat map from 1905 onto a modern aerial of that neighborhood. The empty space they scanned is Lot 4 of the Padgett Subdivision. Lot 1 is where the building and paved parking lot are located.

This is an overlay of a map from 1905 onto a modern aerial photo. The right side of lot 1, which is broken into three pieces on the map, is where an African American cemetery was once located. Today, the lot is home to a FrankCrum Staffing building and a paved parking lot. [Florida Public Archaeology Network]

The Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP directed the archaeologists to scan Lot 4 based on memories of those who grew up in the the black community known as Clearwater Heights, now gone. Some of them contend that the marked graves were relocated to another cemetery in the mid-1950s, but unmarked ones were left behind.

"It’s likely a symptom of erasure, removal of physical boundaries and visible markers of a place,” said Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

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

The former residents who shared their memories were born after the headstones disappeared. But they recall seeing elders praying on the land mapped as Lot 4 as though that was where the unmarked graves were located.

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

By then, the cemetery land had been developed, Moates said, so the empty lot was a more convenient place to pay respects.

“The community today remembers a cemetery exists through pieces of memories shared by grandparents, moms and dads, aunts and uncles," Moates said. “There’s a picture that’s created, built in part with how it looks now.”

Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, hopes the archaeologists will be allowed to look next for the Clearwater Heights graves on Lot 1.

Atkinson said he has reached out to FrankCrum Staffing but has not yet heard back.

Company spokeswoman Angie Garcia said Crum will meet with Atkinson in person to discuss the latest developments.

Related: Clearwater might also have a lost African American cemetery

Ground penetrating radar can scan through the parking lot but not the building floors.

The scenario is similar to Tampa’s Zion Cemetery, found by the archaeology team under a warehouse, vacant storefront and the Robles Park Village public housing project. The radar detected caskets leading up to those buildings so the archaeologists are confident graves stretch beneath them.

Related: Archaeologists begin search for African American graves in Clearwater

Many people believe the bodies from Clearwater Heights were moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin in 1954. That’s because another black cemetery, at Holt Avenue and Engman Street in Clearwater, was relocated there around the same time to make room for a city pool and the former Pinellas High School. Archaeologists will soon check that land for unmarked graves, too.

The November 1954 record indicates the Clearwater Heights cemetery owed the city around $2,000 for road and sewer improvements and was in danger of losing the property.

“According to the document, the city regards St. Matthews Baptist Church as the responsible party to pay for the improvements,” archaeologist Moates said.

It is unclear what came of that.

This city record from 1954 states where Clearwater Heights' African American cemetery was located. [Florida Public Archaeology Network]

But the Tampa Bay Times has learned that Chester B. McMullen Jr. later owned Lot 1 of the Padgett subdivision.

According to news archives, McMullen also built Dunedin’s Parklawn Memorial Cemetery.

A legal advertisement published in the Tampa Tribune Feb. 17, 1957, announced that McMullen sold Lot 1 to Raymond L. Round. A cemetery is not mentioned in the notice.

According to a legal advertisement the Tribune published Jan. 10, 1960, Round then sold Lot 1 to the Sapir Investment Co.

News archives report that Sapir built a Montgomery Ward department store on the property in 1961.