CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Pinellas County School District and the City of Clearwater announced on Friday that archaeologists detected 44 graves from an African American cemetery at the shuttered Curtis Fundamental school and property located across the street at Holt and Engman belonging to the Homeless Empowerment Program.
The report suggests even more graves could be underneath the school building.
Archaeologists with Cardno and the University of South Florida used ground-penetrating radar in early February to search portions of the school property and a small area on the east side of Holt Avenue. They used old maps that referenced the North Greenwood neighborhood cemetery previously referred to as “Negro Cemetery on Holt Avenue” to determine the proper search location.
The district began the search after a 10News report that voiced concerns from the NAACP and the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee that graves from the North Greenwood cemetery were not properly removed from the property before the school district acquired the city-owned land.
A report from Cardno shows in 1948, the Clearwater City Commission offered 30 acres of land, including the cemetery, to the Board of Public Instruction so the district could build an African American high school. A public records request filed by 10News shows just five years later, superintendent Floyd Christian wrote a letter to the city of Clearwater inquiring about a land swap so the city could build a segregated swimming pool for African Americans.
City commission documents from the time outlined the city would then be obligated to move all the graves from the burial ground.
Larkins Funeral Home received the contract to do the move. In December 1954, the city manager reported all the graves had been moved. However, neighbors in Clearwater’s African American community never believed all the graves were relocated.
O’Neal Larkin Jr., who is of no relation to the proprietors of Larkins Funeral Home, said he recalled seeing human remains in the parking lot of the Curtis Fundamental School as crews were doing work in the 1980s, which would have been 30 years after graves were supposed to be relocated.
"I just hope that there's a healing process for this place,” Larkin told 10News on February 17.
Robert Young of Smith-Youngs Funeral Home in Clearwater worked for Larkins Funeral Home as an attendant when he was a young boy. He said he believed graves had been left behind because many of the graves did not have markers, and it would have been difficult to know what graves remained. This effort was complicated even further by the lack of city records kept on the site.
Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP president Zebbie Atkinson IV worked closely with the community, the school district and the city to get answers about the graves. After members of the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee raised concerns, he served as a representative for the group, making sure their concerns were heard by the district and the city.
"It's an unfortunate situation that America has the history that it has and has done very little, if anything to make amends for their atrocities of the past,” he said of the botched relocation. "We need to work together to find the answers so that all hearts are satisfied."
Moving forward, the city of Clearwater and Pinellas County Schools say they will follow archaeologist recommendations at the site, and will be inclusive of community concerns as to what should happen next. "Sometimes, actions we take in the past come back to revisit us and mistakes that we may have made in the past, we have to address their impacts today,” said Bill Horne, manager for the city of Clearwater.
Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10News WTSP. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.
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