CLEARWATER, Fla. — Archaeologists on Wednesday confirmed they found 358 graves from a destroyed African American cemetery at the FrankCrum staffing firm property and along Missouri Ave. in Clearwater.
This includes 70 graves confirmed from a previous search in 2021.
Senior archaeologist Erin McKendry, presented the latest findings from a new report during the Clearwater African American Cemeteries Memorial Committee meeting, hosted by the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch of the NAACP.
"I was blown away when I read that," Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, said.
Archaeologists with Stantec, formerly known as Cardno, used ground-penetrating radar to find graves in both searches. After radar detected 70 graves in 2021, archaeologists used a process called "ground-truthing" in which they removed the top layers of soil to confirm a few burials without physically disturbing the remains.
Archaeologists say this process allows them to verify all their GPR results.
The latest findings come after a multi-year investigation that started after members of Clearwater's African American community came forward to the NAACP in hopes of locating the destroyed St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery.
"We're going to uncover this thing and give our loved ones the proper dignity and honor that they deserve," Carlton Childs told 10 Investigates' Emerald Morrow in 2021. Childs said he believes he has relatives buried in the cemetery.
The St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery was established in 1902 and operated through the 1940s. Researchers say the pressures around land development led the church to sell the property for $15,000 in the mid 1950s.
Records show a couple of years later, the new owner flipped the land and sold it for $115,000.
"This property has changed hands several times. Somewhere along the way, someone had to have known something," Atkinson said.
FrankCrum president, Matt Crum, previously told 10 Tampa Bay his family was unaware of any graves on the site. Upon first learning of the possibility of graves on his family’s business property, he said he wanted to do what was necessary to learn the truth and right the wrongs of the past.
"To me it's the next logical step, to find out, you know, what the perimeter of the old cemetery was, how many possible remains we're talking about," Matt Crum told 10 Tampa Bay in May 2021. "And then we can start having a conversation with all stakeholders to say, ‘okay well what do we do now.’"
Atkinson said the next steps should focus on the community's desire, although there is currently no consensus.
"It's not about me. It's not about the city. It's not about Mr. Crum to an extent. We have to take the citizens that have loved ones here, we have to take their opinions into consideration first," he said.
Clearwater City Manager Jon Jennings said he agrees with Atkinson.
"In my opinion, it's more important to listen to the heirs of the individuals who are currently buried," he said.
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Jennings has been handling the city's response to the recent findings and to the discovery of more graves from another nearby African American cemetery that 10 Tampa Bay first reported was under a shuttered Pinellas County school.
"This is by far the most troubling issue or set of circumstances that I've dealt with ever, frankly, in my career," he said.
Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to 10tampabay.com/erased.