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Are there graves under Tropicana Field parking lots? Archaeologists want to find out

St. Petersburg's Oaklawn Cemetery was moved in the mid-20th century, but it has been long rumored that unmarked graves were left behind.

ST. PETERSBURG — Thirty years ago, residents stepped forward when the city prepared to pave parking lots 1 and 2 for Tropicana Field.

They thought caskets were under those 12 acres on the corner of 16th Street South and spreading from Third Avenue South to Fifth Avenue South.

It was once the home to Oaklawn Cemetery, the city was told, and bodies were likely left behind when it was moved in the mid-20th century.

Oaklawn was adjacent to two other cemeteries. In 1976, human remains were unearthed from one of those properties during construction, years after the burial grounds were supposed to have been moved, bolstering the belief that bodies were also under the parking lot land.

But the land was paved without further investigation.

“More should have been done. It was the right thing to do,” said Louis Claudio, a self-proclaimed “avocational archaeologist.”

The city plans to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana site in coming years.

When it does, more due diligence will be required than in 1990.

The University of South Florida’s Florida Public Archaeology Network has registered the property with the state as a historic cemetery site. It believes human remains could be under those lots.

The designation brings state oversight, so “future developments might require an archaeological survey to make sure human remains are not damaged or destroyed,” network archaeologist Rebecca O’Sullivan said.

A survey would include rolling ground-penetrating radar that can detect graves across the full 12 acres. It was a technology available in 1990 — but not as commonly used as today.

“I don’t recall us using that,” said Rick Mussett, the retired deputy city manager of downtown development for St. Petersburg and a point person on the stadium project. “I’d remember something like that.”

The city was unaware that the network filed the report, but said it is aware of the possibility that graves are still there. It will hire a surveying or archaeology company to find out.

“The city’s urban design and historic preservation manager brought us this concern recently after his staff came across old newspaper articles and conducted their own research,” said Benjamin Kirby, spokesman to Mayor Rick Kriseman. “While we believe individuals buried there have been interred elsewhere, the mayor gave the green light to staff recently to begin the process of confirming this. It is too important to not have absolute clarity.”

This overlay of a 1923 map onto a modern one shows the location of three of St. Petersburg's earliest cemeteries. Oaklawn Cemetery was located where Tropicana Field's parking lots 1 and 2 now sit. The footprint other two, Evergreen Cemetery and the St. Petersburg Cemetery, also known as Moffett Cemetery, are under I-275. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

The archaeology network registered the site after hearing stories about the graves at Tropicana Field. It’s been working for more than a year to recover lost cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area. To date, four have been located.

Two all-black cemeteries were found in Clearwater this year — St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery on the FrankCrum company’s campus at 100 S. Missouri Ave. and an unnamed cemetery on vacant land on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, now owned by the Pinellas County School District.

Each was moved in the 1950s, but archaeologists discovered unmarked graves left behind — 70 at one and 44 at the other.

“When they move these cemeteries, in too many cases, not all the bodies get moved,” said Claudio, who is part of the volunteer group that tends to the century-old Whispering Souls African American Cemetery at 2698 South Drive in Clearwater.

Claudio has been among the most vocal in calling for an archaeological survey of the Tropicana Field parking lots.

“Sometimes, bodies are left by design,” he said. “Sometimes, it was an accident, because it is difficult to find a grave without a headstone or some other marker. I don’t know which this was, but bodies are probably there.”

Parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S. iin St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

According to the report filed with the state, Oaklawn Cemetery was established in 1900 on 16th Street and spread from Third Avenue South to Fifth Avenue South. It was for white and Black people, with segregated sections.

The neighboring cemeteries were Moffett and Evergreen.

The 2-acre Moffett Cemetery was established in 1888 on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue South for Civil War veterans but later mostly used by Black residents, according to news archives included in the network filings. The all-Black, 2-acre Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1900 on 16th Street and Third Avenue South.

The city condemned the three cemeteries in 1926 and ordered there be no more burials.

By 1949, the cemeteries had become a “dumping ground for junk and trash,” the St. Petersburg Times reported that year, and bulldozers were covering graves.

The cemeteries were moved soon after, according to news archives. Around 125 graves were exhumed from Moffett and 225 from Evergreen.

The Tampa Bay Times could find no record of how many were disinterred from Oaklawn.

In 1976, human remains were twice found when apartments on Evergeen’s footprint were razed to build the Interstate 275 overpasses. The former Moffett land was also used for the highway.

USF also registered those as historic cemetery sites, in case the overpasses are ever torn down and the land redeveloped.

Luther Swope, whose brother Grady Swope developed those apartments, admitted to the press in 1976 that when Evergreen was moved, “workers were not able to find full contents of any given grave.”

City residents later stepped forward with stories of finding Evergreen graves after they were supposedly all moved.

Ernest Reynolds, who was 39 when he talked to reporters in 1990, said that while playing in the area as a child, “one of my friends once fell right into a coffin. The top of the coffin had sort of rotted. There were bones in there.”

A construction works shows the skull he found while building the I-275 overpass on land that was once Evergreen Cemetery. [ Times (1976) ]

There were similar concerns about Oaklawn.

The Laurel Park housing projects were constructed on Oaklawn’s land in 1949 and then razed so the city-owned Tropicana, initially named Florida Suncoast Dome, could be built in 1990.

That year, Gerald Metko, the former executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority that had managed Laurel Park, informed the St. Petersburg Times that “old-timers” told him “that not all the graves were moved” from Oaklawn.

And Vernon Strickland, who used to clean the three cemeteries, told the press: “There were graves all over the place. Many were unmarked. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they find bones.”

Related: First coffin is uncovered at Tampa’s erased Zion Cemetery

State law dictates that graves cannot be knowingly disturbed.

The city was aware of that statute in 1990, saying it would stop construction if human remains were found, according to news archives. Officials also told the press they were confident the cemetery was fully exhumed, because no remains were unearthed when Laurel Park was demolished.

But caskets remain on FrankCrum company’s land in Clearwater, archaeologist O’Sullivan pointed out. A Montgomery Ward department store was initially built on that property after the cemetery was supposedly all moved. That structure was demolished in 1998, so IMR Global could build the campus FrankCrum now uses. Yet the graves were not unearthed.

O’Sullivan said St. Petersburg should have conducted a full archaeological survey of the Tropicana parking lot land in 1990.

“I don’t know why they didn’t, since there was obvious knowledge that a cemetery existed there at one time,” she said.

If graves are discovered under the parking lots, the land can still be developed. Human remains can be moved, just at a price.

Related: Read the Times full coverage of lost cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area

After Tampa’s segregation-era, all-Black Zion Cemetery was found last year under a portion of Robles Park Village and neighboring warehouses, state Sen. Janet Cruz suggested the state provide $7,500 per grave for re-interment and a marker.

Instead, the property owners agreed to keep the bodies in the ground and one day turn the land over to a nonprofit that will create a Zion memorial park.

Claudio would like to see the same for Oaklawn Cemetery when the site is redeveloped.

“If there is still a cemetery there, it needs to be recognized,” Claudio said. “I am the type of person who wants to solve mysteries. I don’t like things like this to linger. We need answers.”

Lou Claudio, 67, an avocational archeologist from Safety Harbor, stands in the center of parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where the Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]