CLEARWATER, Fla — As archaeologists wrap up ground-penetrating radar testing for lost graves at the shuttered Curtis Fundamental School at Holt Avenue and Engman Street in Clearwater, a 79-year-old man said he believes graves are still on the site.
“I would bet my life that there are human remains here,” O’Neal Larkin Jr said. “I would stake claim to that myself.”
Larkin spoke exclusively to 10News about his memories of the site. He said he played in the cemetery as a child and knew of areas with and without headstones.
Archaeologists began their search for the lost graves after neighbors with the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee began asking questions about what happened to the segregation-era African American cemetery that once existed at Holt and Engman.
The group contacted the local NAACP, which facilitated conversations with Pinellas County Schools, which currently owns much of the site. The district then began working with the city of Clearwater to hire an archaeological search firm after records confirmed a cemetery did exist at one point on the site.
However, the district says it believes all of the graves have been moved. In the mid-1950s, the city and the school district made a land swap so the city could build a segregated pool for African Americans under the condition the city move roughly 350 graves on the property. Larkins Funeral Home (no relation to O’Neal Larkin) was contracted to move the graves.
Larkin said he doesn’t believe that ever happened.
“How we believed that they moved all these people? But in my time, they did it too fast,” he said. “They were just too fast.”
Larkin said he does remember a few of the graves being moved, but he said there were far too many graves for the funeral to complete the job in the short amount of time that it did the work.
Larkin also recalled seeing bones on the property in the 1980s when workers on school property were reportedly doing some utility work.
“I know in the 80s, they were digging in the front of this building here on a Friday and they stopped, and I walked out and there was human remains where they had dug up in the front of this building,” Larkin said. “…I remember one of the gentlemen told me, he said they had dug up human remains and told me I couldn't hang around here because it was off limits.”
A spokesperson for the school district did not have any information on this incident when 10News asked. The district said it would have to look into records to see if anything was reported.
The district expects to release results from the ground-penetrating radar report once archaeologists process their findings.
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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