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Find and preserve Tampa Bay’s lost cemeteries | Editorial

Tampa Bay’s lost cemeteries are part of our collective history.

Cemeteries are vital histories, snapshots of time and place that pass a community’s story on to later generations. That’s why discovering a lost cemetery carries an obligation for any community. As Tampa Bay works to recover more of its lost souls, residents should honor these lives and our collective history by committing to document these final resting places as thoroughly as possible.

The latest mystery surrounding the fate of human remains has emerged in the former African-American neighborhood of Clearwater Heights. As 74-year-old Essie Rayner-Jones recounted recently to the Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo, the land near the corner of Madison Avenue and Gould Street had housed a 1-acre African-American cemetery, which was moved in the 1950s. "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 remember being told as children that the field remained a burial ground after the headstones disappeared. They now want to know whether graves are there or if the retelling was only a neighborhood ghost story. “Let’s find archaeologists who will help,” said 64-year-old Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, who grew up in Clearwater Heights.

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

A group of former Clearwater Heights residents has reached out to the property’s 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 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 Times.

The effort in Clearwater Heights comes as two lost local cemeteries have been discovered recently in Tampa. In the past year, the 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery was found during development of the Water Street Tampa project in downtown’s channel district. Then a special report by the Times led to the discovery of the segregation-era all-black Zion Cemetery under a portion of the Robles Park Village housing project in Tampa. Researchers are also exploring whether the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for paupers was built on what is now the campus of King High School in Hillsborough County.

The discoveries in Tampa have come about thanks to sustained public pressure and the willingness of the Tampa Housing Authority and the Hillsborough County School District to do the right thing. Documenting these finds is not easy; historic records can be spotty or non-existent, and residents’ memories can understandably fade. That’s why it’s key that government and private property owners cooperate in a spirit of public mindedness to document this local history.

The experience in Tampa shows that all involved can work collaboratively and handle these investigations with the sensitivity and professionalism they deserve. That should give communities across the Tampa Bay area the comfort of moving forward in bringing these lost cemeteries back into public view.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.