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Crews Begin Searching For Possible Graves In Clearwater

Workers dig up a gravesite
Jeff Moates/University of South Florida
Engineers and USF archaeologists dig up the grounds of what used to be Clearwater's North Greenwood Cemetery to see if any unmarked graves are still there.

Archaeologists are searching for potential unmarked graves on a site in Clearwater.

After the discovery of Zion Cemetery in Tampa in 2019, the search to find additional forgotten Black cemeteries around the region began.

African Americans who grew up in Clearwater often heard stories about unmarked graves that were left behind after a number of cemeteries were moved.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, archaeologists last year used ground-penetrating radar to find “grave-like anomalies” in what was once the North Greenwood Cemetery.

The area, which is now owned by the Pinellas County School District, is currently being excavated by archaeologists and an engineering firm to see if the graves are still there.

“What we're doing today is trying to physically verify the location of graves that were identified in a previous ground-penetrating radar survey that was conducted last February and August,” said Jeff Moates, an archeologist at the University of South Florida.

“We're out here with a medium-sized excavator that's stripping back the ground surface to reveal the presence of those graves in the ground.”

According to the Times, the North Greenwood Cemetery was in operation between 1940 and 1954, when it was sold to make room for Pinellas High School and a city pool. This caused the remains of 350 people to be moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin.

However, while the marked graves were moved, residents felt the unmarked ones were left behind.

READ MORE: See WUSF's coverage of Tampa's "lost cemeteries"

The Clearwater Heights Remembrance Committee — a group of people who used to live in that neighborhood before it was razed — reached out to USF to confirm their suspicions.

“They asked us to look into these two properties, this one in North Greenwood (and) one on South Missouri Avenue that's private property, to see if what they remember as burying grounds, (the) two cemeteries here in Clearwater that served the African American community,” said Moates.

Both North Greenwood and the second property, the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, served the African American community.

“And there's hundreds of death certificates that point to these two cemeteries where they were buried,” said Moates.

Discoveries of sites like these are becoming more frequent in the state of Florida, with some state lawmakers hoping to form a task force dedicated to finding out exactly how many of these “lost cemeteries” exist.

Moates believes there are many factors that have caused Black cemeteries in particular to disappear.

“We can point to pressures associated with structural racism and inequities and gentrification development. African American communities, especially in these urban centers, were pushed further out once the city governments began to acquire new lands and incorporate new parts of the city,” he said.

“We can also point to issues of segregation and poor management from the way the cities dealt with residents of their communities. And unfortunately, properties like this and other properties within the African American communities were being taken for their land value and pushing the communities out.”

The search to find more potential graves on the former North Greenwood Cemetery site is scheduled to be finished by the end of next week. Once completed, it will be up to the community and the local chapter of the NAACP to decide how they want to handle any bodies that are discovered.

While the graveyard may be gone, Moates said, it’s important to keep the community’s history alive.

“What we're finding is that the cemeteries, while they can be erased from sight, the memories of the people who are buried here aren’t as easily erased,” he said. “And so that's the important piece to this story — that needs to be recorded and documented for the public to understand and the public to know.”

Devonta Davis is the WUSF Noble Radio News Intern for the spring 2021 semester.