Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Clearwater

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]
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]
Published Jan. 28
Updated Jan. 28

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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

  1. Luis Espel, 22, uses the Cass Street bike lane to commute to work in Tampa. Times (2019)
  2. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates.
  3. Island Estates, a neighborhood in Clearwater Bay. There are three City Council races on this year's ballot as the city prepares for the realities of climate change.
  4. A school threat circulating among students and parents in East Lake and Tarpon Springs originated in Texas on Snapchat, authorities said.
  5. Chief executive officer Rich Hume (left) is expected to remain in place following the company's sale to Apollo Global Management, but he would be eligible for a golden parachute compensation of nearly $15.4 million after he is terminated. Former chief executive officer Bob Dutkowsky (right), the executive chairman of Tech Data’s board of directors, would receive $17.3 million if Apollo lets him go. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times (2018)
  6. Zion Cemetery disappeared in the late 1920s just as the new owner built a storefront on the land. Today, hundreds of graves lie beneath the property — home to public housing apartments, warehouses and a vehicle tow lot.
  7. Penny Padgett, sister-in-law of retired Hillsborough County Judge J. Rogers Padgett Sr., looks through family pictures at her Clearwater home. Rogers Padgett, at rear, and Chip Padgett are great-grandsons of former Clearwater Mayor Robert Padgett, who donated land for use as an African American cemetery.
  8. The Clearwater city elections are March 17. Check tampabay.com for everything you need to know about this year's races.
  9. Clearwater voters will decide six referendum questions in this year's election. For complete coverage of Clearwater's city elections, check tampabay.com.
  10. The process for getting into a Pinellas County school choice program is in its final phase, the "acceptance period," which expires at 5 p.m. Feb. 21 for the 2020-21 academic year.
  11. Shareholders voted Wednesday to sell Tech Data, which employs about 2,000 of its 14,000 employees in the Tampa Bay area, to Apollo Global Management for $6 billion, or $145 per share. DIRK SHADD  |  Times (2019)
  12. Three of the four candidates for mayor oppose the amphitheater proposed for the downtown waterfront as part of the Imagine Clearwater project. The nine hopefuls running for two other council seats have varying stances on the issue. The election is on March 17.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement