CLEARWATER, Fla. — When archaeologists discovered more than 50 graves from a destroyed Black cemetery under parking lot pavement and a shuttered Clearwater school, Allison Dolan started working on ways to memorialize the sacred space.
“It's important that everybody knows this, all the stories, all the history of Clearwater,” Dolan, president of the Clearwater Historical Society said. “Any community, you can't do anything unless you know all the history. The good. The bad. The ugly.”
As a member of the Pinellas County Historic Preservation Board, Dolan said she initiated the process to get a Florida Historical Marker erected at the site of a segregation-era cemetery known today as the North Greenwood Cemetery. The shuttered Curtis Fundamental School at Holt and Engman sits atop the site today.
“We wrote up the text and things like that then went to the state. They approved it,” she said. “The county came in and paid for it and it's now been delivered to the museum.”
Records show the North Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1940 when the Clearwater City Commission decided the St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery was "inadequate." The commission said once the new cemetery was established, Black residents could not be buried in any other part of the city.
However, documents from a 10 Investigates public records request show in 1954, the Pinellas County Schools superintendent proposed a land swap that would give the district the cemetery land in exchange for another parcel. The proposal suggested the city pay to relocate the graves to another location.
A local funeral home won a contract to move the graves and reported in 1954 the process was complete.
Robert Young worked as a gravedigger for the funeral home and only recalls moving marked burials.
“Unless the grave was marked, or if there was some type of indentation in the ground, how would you know that a body was there? So, that's my thinking that all bodies were not moved,” Young told 10 Tampa Bay in 2019.
Nearly 70 years later, dozens of graves remain.
Results from a ground-penetrating radar search show where some graves extend out from underneath the school building, leading archaeologists to believe more graves exist in places they were unable to scan.
"There is definitely the potential for additional burials below the building," said Erin McKendry, an archaeologist with Stantec (formerly Cardno). She was the lead archaeologist on the case.
"I believe that at the time they're estimating there could be up to 300 individuals that were buried there...There's documentation that shows that there were permits for approximately 300-350 burials that they anticipated needing to be removed from the site" she said.
There are currently conversations happening between the NAACP, Pinellas County Schools, the city of Clearwater and the larger community on ways to honor the cemetery’s history and the souls laid to rest there. Dolan’s efforts to erect a historical marker are one of the first steps.
“Until we can decide what the grand plan is, at least this is something that people can go and see and learn the history of it,” she said.
The two-sided marker details the timeline of the cemetery’s establishment, operation and demise. It also explains the historical significance, reading in part:
"This site continues to be a cemetery and reflects the social history of the African American community with burial customs that can be traced back to the time of enslavement. Loved ones left items on graves like coins glass vases for flowers, and conch shells, as gestures of custom and remembrance. These objects, and the many graves where they were placed, remain here to this day located in areas on both sides of Holt Avenue."
A ceremony to unveil the marker will take place on Saturday, Dec. 3.