Florida Archaeologists Find 29 Unmarked Graves at Site of Razed Black Cemetery

Authorities moved the historically African American burial ground to make way for a high school and city pool in the 1950s

An aerial view of the city on the bay, with blue water in foreground and a bridge extending to the left
Researchers discovered 29 graves at the original site of the North Greenwood Cemetery, which operated in Clearwater, Florida, between 1940 and 1954. Pictured: An aerial view of Clearwater, circa 1930–45 Boston Public Library via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In 1954, officials in Clearwater, Florida, moved the historically African American North Greenwood Cemetery to a new location. Though black residents argued that the operation left numerous unmarked graves beneath the surface, authorities ignored their appeals for decades.

Now, reports Leali Shalabi for WJCT, researchers from the Florida Public Archaeology Network, the University of South Florida and Tampa-based engineering firm Cardno Inc. have proven these community members correct, confirming that at least 29 neglected graves are hidden beneath the original burial ground.

Preliminary surveys conducted at the site last year identified the presence of “grave-like anomalies,” as Paul Guzzo reported for the Tampa Bay Times in December. To investigate further, the team scanned the former cemetery with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and used hand tools like shovels, sifters and trowels to carefully search the soil.

North Greenwood Cemetery was in operation from 1940 to 1954, according to the Times. In addition to the graves, reports WJCT, the archaeologists found two dimes from 1942 and a penny from 1940.

Clearwater officials sold the original burial plot to make room for Pinellas High School (now a defunct, empty school building) and a city pool that was later torn down. As John Guerra notes for Tampa Bay Newspapers, the remains buried at the North Greenwood Cemetery were relocated to Parklawn Cemetery, some seven miles north.

As chief archaeologist Jeff Moates explains in a video posted on the Clearwater NAACP chapter’s Facebook page, the graves were oriented east to west, with the head of each burial facing toward the rising sun.

“We’ve uncovered material that you would expect to be associated with graves,” Moates tells WJCT. “There’s evidence of coffin hardware, decayed remains of coffins, concrete vaults, associated gravestone or headstone materials that are in a kind of a disturbed state.”

He adds that the researchers found an aluminum grave marker bearing the name of Mr. William Ridley, who was buried at the cemetery in 1951.

These finds mark the latest development in a major reckoning for the Tampa Bay area, where recent excavations have rediscovered a number of neglected African American heritage sites. Black residents have argued for years that many historic black burial sites in the region were ignored, paved over, turned into commercial lots or otherwise mishandled.

Three years ago, Tampa Bay Times journalists acting on a tip from local historian Ray Reed found Tampa’s first all-black graveyard, Zion Cemetery, buried beneath land now occupied by the Tampa Housing Authority. Archaeologists later discovered nearly 300 grave sites on the previously unmarked site, sparking a push to uncover even more forgotten burials in the region.

Discoveries of other abandoned black burial grounds quickly followed, including a nearly all-black grave site hidden beneath a Tampa high school and the remains of the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church burial ground, where archaeologists identified 70 possible graves left behind in 1955. Most recently, archaeologists surveying Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base found a black cemetery that may have served as the final resting place for at least 38 people.

Zion Cemetery scan
This 3-D scan shows the locations of unmarked graves that once belonged to Zion Cemetery, an African American cemetery founded in Tampa in 1901 and rediscovered last year. Courtesy of the University of South Florida

As Emerald Morrow explained for local broadcast station WTSP this past June, the fact that so many historically black cemeteries have been neglected is no accident. Decades of systemic racism and Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War pushed African Americans out of communities where they had lived—and buried their dead—for generations.

“At the time, racism and segregation meant African Americans lacked the political and economic power to hold onto their property and sacred institutions like cemeteries,” noted WTSP. “And it’s the buildup of these injustices over time that have led to outrage in the black community today.”

As the Post and Courier reports, some lawmakers are seeking to allocate federal funding toward finding and preserving historic black cemeteries. Proposed legislation that passed the Senate last year would pave the way for the creation of a sweeping African American Burial Grounds Network, allowing experts to coordinate research efforts, create a nationwide database of black cemeteries and receive grant funding.

Last November, more than 60 organizations dedicated to cultural heritage and preservation signed a letter of support for the proposed network.

“Cemeteries are places of tribute and memory, connecting communities with their past,” the letter states. “... Preserving and protecting these sacred sites, and the stories they tell, is an integral part of our American heritage.”

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