CLEARWATER — A large tree stood in the middle of the empty field next to Essie Rayner-Jones’ childhood home in the African American neighborhood of Clearwater Heights.
And, once a week, she said, Sonny Buchanan sat under it to pay respect to his mother.
“She was buried nearby,” said Rayner-Jones, 74.
But it was the 1960s. And the 1-acre African American cemetery, on land near the corner of Madison Avenue and Gould Street, had been moved during the prior decade.
“They took the graves with headstones,” said Rayner-Jones, who grew up on Gould Street. “They left the unmarked ones, and there were plenty. Go thumping around, you’ll find skeletons.”
Others who grew up in that since-razed neighborhood also say they were told as children that the field remained a burial ground after the headstones disappeared.
They are now seeking confirmation that there are active graves there, or whether it was a neighborhood ghost story.
“Let’s find archaeologists who will help,” said 64-year-old Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, who grew up in Clearwater Heights. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t."
A group of former Clearwater Heights residents have reached out to the property’s current owner, Frank Crum, Jr.
But he does not support their investigation.
The former cemetery land is now part of a 2-acre vacant lot on his FrankCrum Staffing’s Clearwater campus at 100 S. Missouri Ave.
“We have every reason to believe that the funeral directors who moved the cemetery back in the 1950s did a thoughtful and thorough job," Crum wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. In a statement, Crum said he does not believe there are any bodies buried on the site.
A year ago, Abdur-Rahim admitted, he would have been hesitant to come forward with the notion that a cemetery has been lost on that land for decades.
But today, he said, the Tampa Bay area recognizes it is possible.
Two lost local cemeteries have been discovered in the past year.
First came the 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery, found during development of the Water Street Tampa project. Then, acting on a report by the Times, archaeologists revealed that the segregation-era all-black Zion Cemetery is under a portion of the Robles Park Village housing projects in Tampa.
Now, the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for paupers is the subject of research underway on the campus of King High School in Hillsborough County.
What’s more, historians believe the early-20th century College Hill Cemetery for Cubans and African Americans is on an empty piece of land that is now part of Tampa’s Italian Club Cemetery.
Still, those lost cemeteries have records pointing to their former locations.
There is no paper trail for the old burial ground in Clearwater Heights. It is neither on maps nor listed in city directories. The Times could not find a single obituary citing a cemetery in Clearwater Heights.
Those raised there say the cemetery didn’t even have a sign or formal name.
“We have our memories,” Abdur-Rahim said.
Clearwater Heights was established in the early 1900s and roughly bounded by Cleveland Street to the north, Court Street to the south, Ewing Ave. to the west and Missouri Ave. to the east.
The cemetery was constructed on soft sand, the former residents said, and abutted the Williams Elementary School playground without a fence separating the two.
Still, news archives detailing the school’s construction in 1946 don’t mention a cemetery.
“We are going to keep looking for answers and archives,” said Clearwater Historical Society President Allison Dolan, who is assisting the former residents because she believes active graves could have been left behind.
Among the questions Dolan has: When was the first burial and how many burials were there?
Robert Young, who as a youth worked as a grave digger, recalls assisting with a burial in Clearwater Heights in the mid-1950s.
The 75-year-old, who today owns Smith-Youngs Funeral Home in Clearwater, said the cemetery was exhumed not long after and moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin.
But 64-year-old Ruth Rembert said her grandfather, Jefferson Rembert, was buried in Clearwater Heights in 1930, yet there is no record of him at Parklawn.
“I think he is still in the Heights” said Rembert, who was also raised there.
Though he was not part of that team that exhumed the Clearwater Heights burial ground, funeral home owner Young also said active graves could have been left behind.
“Some had markers, but others did not,” Young said. “There was no map showing where everyone was buried. If there were no markers, how would they know where they were?”
Former cemetery neighbor Rayner-Jones said, “they didn’t even do a good job moving those they moved.”
For weeks after the graves were exhumed, she said, children found bones scattered about.
“We’d try to guess what part of the body it was," said Rayner-Jones. “We didn’t realize what was going on until we got older.”
Her recollection mirrors what occurred in Zion Cemetery.
Eunive Massey, 96, grew up next to Zion. In 1933, Massey has said, she watched a hectic disinterment process of that burial ground that left bones scattered.
Nearly 130 coffins were discovered under Zion’s footprint. Archaeologists expect to find hundreds more.
Williams Elementary School closed in 1967, and developments began to replace sections of Clearwater Heights soon after.
“The Heights died a slow death,” former resident Abdur-Rahim said. "It was gone by the late ’80s.”
But the cemetery land has remained vacant through all these years.
“Did people know something?” Abdur-Rahim said.
Property owner Crum said he was unaware that a cemetery was ever there when, in 2004, he purchased from IMR Global the land and buildings his company now uses.
Three years ago, Barbara Sorey-Love, 67, founded the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee that brings former neighborhood residents together.
She thought members would reminisce about the good times they shared.
“But everyone kept bringing up the cemetery,” Sorey-Love said. “It is time to begin a discussion to find those buried in the cemetery on the Heights and to honor their memories.”