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Volunteers try to save African American cemetery

A small plot of land in Safety Harbor is actually a historical African American cemetery, and the descendant of one of its occupants wants to save it.

It’s easy to drive past the Whispering Souls cemetery and not even realize it’s there.

Nestled between two homes in a residential neighborhood near Sunset Point Road and US-19, the patch of grass looks more like a vacant lot than a final resting place.

“I never knew my grandmother or my grandfather. I was raised in Boston, Massachusetts,” said Jaqueline Hayes as she swiped away dirt from the top of a grave marker with her foot. “They deserved better than this.”

Hayes’ grandparents, Amanda and Charlie Smith, are buried in the front corner of Whispering Souls. The cemetery, which Charlie held the deed for until he died, is a segregated cemetery for African Americans. Hayes says her grandfather was one of the only black man in town who felt comfortable walking down Main Street.

Now, his bones are covered by a tree someone planted along the fence line.

“When we got a hold of it last year, the grass was waist-high,” said Hayes.

A group of volunteers joined Hayes in the fight to restore the cemetery to respectability. The group started calling themselves Whispering Souls. That’s how the cemetery got its name.

“It’s immoral to have a neglected cemetery, and when I found out it was a black cemetery, somehow that’s even worse,” said Grisela Bennie.

Credit: Bobby Lewis
The cemetery was so dilapidated even neighbors didn't know the graves were there.

The first community cleanup effort was on Earth Day in 2017. The old land needed a new look. Volunteers raked and bagged leaves. Pretty soon, headstones were clean.

“If my mom or dad was buried somewhere but I couldn’t find them, that would be very heartbreaking,” said 11-year-old C-J Howard, who mowed the grass on the near-acre sized lot.

Johnny Lee Neal, a U.S. Navy service member, is buried here. So is WWI veteran Roy Elijah.

Lisa Rice has lived in the neighborhood with the cemetery since 1998. She didn’t know what it was either.

County records say 130 people are buried there. Hayes knows that’s not correct since her grandfather’s name isn’t even accounted for in the figure. There are about 20 visible headstones.

The Whispering Souls group hopes to raise enough money to build a rod iron fence around the property to help identify it as a cemetery and bring some dignity to the space.

“If it was relatives of yours, you’d want to know,” said volunteer Rich Kelly.

Hayes hopes that day is coming soon. Her grandmother’s grave marker sits right next to the dilapidated gate that Boy Scouts erected in the 1980s.

Someday, Whispering Souls will be beautiful again.

“We want to give honor to this cemetery,” she said, standing over Amanda Smith’s 1894 to 1970 nameplate. “They say she was very sweet and she was a good cook and very helpful.”

Whispering Souls is located at 2698 South Drive in Clearwater. If you'd like to donate, you can do so here.

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