Lost African American graves discovered in Clearwater

A burial ground was moved from the site in 1954. But ground radar has found 44 potential “graves” that may have been left behind. There could be more.
A cemetery was once located in this parking lot next to a vacant Pinellas County School District building in Clearwater. Now ground radar has discovered 44 African-American graves at the site, and more could be found.
A cemetery was once located in this parking lot next to a vacant Pinellas County School District building in Clearwater. Now ground radar has discovered 44 African-American graves at the site, and more could be found. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 28, 2020|Updated Feb. 28, 2020

CLEARWATER — Another forgotten African American burial ground has been discovered.

Ground penetrating radar has identified 44 “grave-like anomalies” belonging to an African American cemetery once located on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, city of Clearwater and Pinellas County School District officials announced Friday.

The graves were found on land that is now a paved parking lot, an unused parcel owned by the school district. The potential graves are just 2.45 to 5.62 feet below the surface.

Additional graves may also exist “beneath the footprint” of a school district building built on land that was once home to a cemetery, according to the report prepared by Cardno, the private archaeology firm hired by Clearwater and the Pinellas County School Board to conduct the search.

The cemetery’s name is unknown. City and school officials are referring to is as the “North Greenwood Cemetery.”

Related: IN SEARCH OF LOST CEMETERIES: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on forgotten African American graves.

This is the third time since August that archaeologists have discovered lost African American graves in the Tampa Bay region.

“The report highlighted the need for continued investigation,” said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who addressed the discovery at a news conference with Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch and Clint Herbic, associate superintendent for Pinellas schools.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that America has the history it has and has done very little if anything to make amends for the atrocities of the past,” Atkinson said. “We need to work together to find the answer so all hearts are satisfied in the end.”

The next step, Horne said, will be to give Cardno the greenlight to validate the radar’s findings by digging just close enough to the graves to confirm their existence without touching them.

The archaeologist’s final report should be done by the end of March. Officials will also start consulting with the community about how to move forward. Atkinson said he’ll likely convene a meeting to ask residents how they wish to proceed.

“Now that we’re here we’re here, and it’s how do we best move forward in a manner that serves all parties involved and the community?” he said.

There were plans for that property. The city, the school district and the Homeless Empowerment Program announced in July they would team up for what is believed to be a first-of-its kind project. The school district was going to lease a parcel just west of the nonprofit’s North Greenwood campus to the nonprofit.

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The Homeless Empowerment Program would then build as many as 39 affordable housing units on the lot. Included in the property leased to the nonprofit would be a nearby 1.3-acre lot donated by the city to the school district.

In return, the school district would agree to run the nonprofit’s adult education programs.

Herbic said he’s been in contact with the Homeless Empowerment Program and said they’ll work to salvage the affordable housing project.

“This doesn’t mean that that project has to come to an end,” he said. “Maybe we just kind of take a look at our property ... and tweak those plans a little bit.”

Related: Potential Clearwater cemetery puts affordable housing project on hold

In August, the Tampa Housing Authority announced that graves from the segregation-era all-black Zion Cemetery were still under its former footprint that include five of the public agency’s Robles Park Village public housing apartment buildings plus privately-owned warehouses and a tow lot on the 3700 block of N Florida Avenue.

Then in November, the Hillsborough County School District discovered that the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for paupers was still on its King High School campus.

Around 300 Zion caskets were identified with ground penetrating radar and 145 for Ridgewood. Still, archaeologists believe that most of Zion’s more than 800 and all of Ridgewood’s estimated 250 caskets remain in the ground. The headstones were moved but not the bodies.

Related: 50 things to know about the Tampa Bay area’s forgotten cemeteries

Now the search for lost burial grounds turns to Clearwater, where hundreds of graves were moved from the North Greenwood Cemetery more than six decades ago.

Newspapers in 1954 reported that, to make room for a city pool and Pinellas High School, the remains of some 350 people from that burial ground were moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin

The city pool is long gone and the school building on the site, behind the Clearwater Intermediate School, is unused and fenced off.

The archaeology report says there are “numerous disturbances that may indicate areas where burials have been removed.”

Still, when the other two lost cemeteries were found, the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP questioned whether when the Clearwater cemetery was moved that unmarked graves were left behind.

The ground penetrating radar search conducted from Feb. 6-13 confirmed that there were.

Meanwhile, the search for other lost African American cemeteries continues on both sides of the bridge.

Different teams of archaeologists are looking for the St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery on FrankCrum Staffing’s campus in Clearwater, the Port Tampa Cemetery on MacDill Air Force Base and the Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery on the Bay Tree Farm in Odessa.