Lost African American Cemetery Found Under Florida Parking Lot

The discovery marks the fourth forgotten black graveyard identified in the Tampa Bay area in the past year

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

Residents of Clearwater Heights, a historically black neighborhood in Clearwater, Florida, have long shared rumors of unmarked graves left behind when an all-black cemetery was moved to another town in the 1950s.

Now, an archaeological survey has confirmed this speculation, reports Paul Guzzo for the Tampa Bay Times. According to records obtained by the Times, researchers recently used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to analyze a patch of land in the Tampa Bay community. Though a paved parking lot covers most of the site, a business complex owned by staffing firm FrankCrum occupies a small portion of the land.

Archaeologists discovered 70 possible graves just below the surface of the lot, says Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. The team only surveyed a fifth of the 2.5-acre cemetery plot, raising the possibility that more graves may be hidden at the site.

The St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church established the cemetery in 1909. When the church sold the land in 1955, most of the bodies buried in the graveyard were moved to another African American cemetery in nearby Dunedin. But some of the graves were unmarked, and they appear to have been left behind during the move.

Over the next 50 years, the plot of land hosted a department store, an administrative building and a technology firm. In 2004, FrankCrum purchased the site, unaware of the forgotten graves on-site, according to the Times.

The new discovery is the latest in a string of key historical finds across Tampa Bay. In the past year alone, research spearheaded by local reporters has led to the identification of four historical black cemeteries in the area.

Two years ago, Times journalists acting on a tip from local historian Ray Reed realized that the city’s first all-black graveyard, Zion Cemetery, was buried beneath land now occupied by the Tampa Housing Authority and restaurant warehouses.

Using GPR, researchers discovered more than 300 unmarked graves. Their findings, published in June 2019, led to the rediscovery of other cemeteries in the area, including a nearly all-black grave site hidden beneath a Tampa high school.

That these black cemeteries have been neglected or “lost” to time is no accident, but rather the result of systemic racism, reports Emerald Morrow for local broadcast station WTSP. During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Jim Crow laws effectively barred black people from owning property—a restriction that forced African Americans out of neighborhoods where they had lived for generations.

As Morrow explains, “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. And it’s the buildup of these injustices over time that have led to outrage in the black community today.”

Spurred by the recent spate of discoveries, experts from the University of South Florida and the Florida Public Archaeology Network are researching unmarked graves and working to identify the people buried within.

“We die twice,” says USF librarian Drew Smith in a statement. “We die when our physical body dies, but we also die when the last person speaks our name. We can bring these people back because we can begin talking about them and speaking their names again.”

As Jacey Fortin and Johnny Diaz reported for the New York Times last November, efforts to preserve abandoned or neglected historical black cemeteries are ongoing across the country.

In February 2019, Congressional lawmakers introduced the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act, which seeks to create a national database of historic black cemeteries under the auspices of the National Park Service, according to Caitlin Byrd of the Post and Courier.

More recently, the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee announced plans to dig for suspected mass graves linked to the Tulsa Race Massacre, as DeNeen L. Brown reported for the Washington Post in February. In 1921, a white mob attacked and destroyed the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing an estimated 300 black Tulsans. Public interest in the search for the mass graves has intensified as the centennial of the massacre approaches, wrote Jason Daley for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

Work aimed at unearthing and preserving historic black burial sites has taken on new urgency as protests against racism and police brutality erupt across the country.

As historian Fred Hearns tells the Tampa Bay Times, “[Y]ou can’t hide the truth. It will be dug up. Those young people out in the street inherited our rage. Until we tell the whole truth, there will always be a lingering evil—like the cemeteries—waiting to pop its head up.”

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