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Records confirm memories about bodies left at old Clearwater Heights cemetery

A former mayor sold the burial ground to a black church in 1909. He objected when it was sold later for development.

CLEARWATER — J. Rogers Padgett Sr. recalls in detail the trip he took with his father more than 60 years ago to an African American cemetery in the neighborhood of Clearwater Heights.

An ancestor of theirs had sold the land to a church at the turn of the century. But the church was selling it to a developer.

“There was a reverter clause that said if it was not used as a cemetery, the land goes back to our family," said Padgett, 81, a retired Hillsborough County judge residing in Clearwater. “My father sued, but lost.”

Many of the graves had markers so they were easily spotted and moved to a cemetery in Dunedin. But graves that had no markers weren’t moved before construction began, say some of the people who grew up in the neighborhood.

Now, as the story of forgotten African American cemeteries is coming to light through reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, archaeologists are searching the land for graves using ground-penetrating radar.

Judge Padgett’s childhood memories have helped fill in some of the gaps about the Clearwater Heights cemetery. The neighborhood, like the cemetery, was removed decades ago.

“There is no more guessing,” said Barbara Sorey-Love, 68, who lived in Clearwater Heights and led the charge for an archaeological survey of the site. “It’s nice to know the story."

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

The Times couldn’t find records of the lawsuit that Padgett recalls. But other records back up his story.

Padgett’s great grandfather was Robert H. Padgett, a British immigrant who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. He settled in Clearwater in 1895 and served as mayor from 1904-1905, buying land throughout the city.

Robert Padgett moved to Clearwater in the late 1890s and bought land that would later become an African American cemetery. FrankCrum Staffing now occupies part of the property. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Padgett sold 2½ acres in 1909 for $150 to St. Matthews Baptist Church, today called St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church, according to a deed filed when Clearwater was still part of Hillsborough County.

The deed makes no mention of the reverter clause that Rogers Padgett recalls, but it does say the property is “to be used for a colored cemetery."

The cemetery’s location, according to the deed, was the east half of Lot 1 of the Padgett subdivision. The land now is occupied by a paved parking lot and a piece of the FrankCrum Staffing building at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

In 1915, according to a legal advertisement published in the former Tampa Times, Robert Padgett also sold St. Matthews a small piece of the property a mile away at 703 Seminole St. where the church still stands.

In an era when African Americans were segregated and treated as second-class citizens, Robert Padgett "believed they needed places to call their own,” said Chip Padgett, 76, another great-grandson who resides in Clearwater.

The Times left two voice mails for the church’s leader, Konrad McCree Jr., but he did not respond.

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 to Chester McMullen, Milton Jones and T.R. Hudd. The deed makes no mention of a cemetery.

A corresponding real estate affidavit says, “The amount has been expended entirely on improvements on the church building.”

Still, said Rogers Padgett, his father Joseph was upset when word of the negotiations reached the family.

“The land was for a cemetery,” he said. “It wasn’t for developers. So, we went over there one Sunday afternoon to see what was happening."

They parked on Missouri Avenue, Padgett recalled, and walked about 50 yards through white sand overgrown with sand pine trees and myrtle bushes.

“Suddenly, there were grave markers,” Padgett said. “Until I saw them, it didn’t look like a cemetery. The area we were in had about half a dozen stone markers, but none were big."

Other graves, he said, had temporary metal markers provided by a funeral home until a permanent one could be installed. But it was clear no permanent markers were coming.

Related: The lost Clearwater Heights black cemetery might be under a building

“What got me was some of the metal ones were up and out of the ground. They were lying around. I wondered how anyone would know where people are buried.”

Robert Young worked as a gravedigger in the Clearwater Heights cemetery during the 1950s. He said the rest of the burial ground looked the same as the area Padgett visited, including dislodged temporary markers.

But overall, Young said, the community took good care of the land.

“They’re just metal stakes,” said Young, 75, who now owns Smith-Youngs Funeral Home in Clearwater. “So, they were easily disturbed.”

Young is among those who believe unmarked graves were left behind.

“If there is nothing indicating where they are, how can they move them?" he said.

The men who bought the land — McMullen, Jones and Hudd — opened Parklawn Memorial Cemetery for African Americans in Dunedin in 1954 and moved the bodies there from Clearwater Heights in the mid-1950s.

For weeks after the bodies were exhumed, neighborhood kids found discarded bones there, said Essie Rayner-Jones, 74, who was one of the children.

The landowners bought the cemetery for $15,000 and sold it for $110,000 in 1957 to Raymond Round, according to a legal advertisement published in the former Tampa Tribune.

Another Tribune legal advertisement says Round sold the property in 1960 for $105,000 to Sapir Investments. The company built a Montgomery Ward department store there, according to news archives.

Related: Take a tour of lost African American cemeteries across Tampa Bay

In the mid-1970s, the city of Clearwater’s Public Services Department took over the store as an administrative building. It later was demolished.

Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, 64, lived in Clearwater Heights and worked for the Public Services Department at the time. He recalls that the office had no phones.

The reason, according to rumors at the time, was that the phone company “came across bones” while trying to install lines.

“We used handheld radio."

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