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‘It's very important to do this’: Archaeologists scan old Pinellas Co. school for graves from black cemetery

Concerns that graves from an African American cemetery could still be at an old school led the district to hire archaeologists to scan the property.

CLEARWATER, Fla — Archaeologists with the University of South Florida and T2 Utility Engineers began searching on Thursday for lost graves from an African American cemetery that once sat at the old Curtis Fundamental school and extended to the other side of Holt Avenue in Clearwater.

“It's very important to do this. The community has a concern, and then that becomes a concern of ours,” said Isabel Mascareñas, spokesperson for Pinellas County Schools. “If there's any doubt that some of the graves were not removed from this property back in the 1950s, then we want to know about it and make sure that the proper steps are taken.”

The district first became aware of concerns related to the old cemetery after a 10News report in December. Members of the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee, a neighborhood group, said they remembered a cemetery at the intersection of Holt and Engman, but could not recall what happened to it.  

RELATED: Pinellas County superintendent on possibility of graves under high school: 'Researching this matter is a priority'

“This was the only place that the city provided for negroes to be buried. And so, this was the city negro cemetery,” said Carlton Childs. Childs is a descendant of Mack Dixon Sr., a prominent African American who accumulated large areas of property in Clearwater. One of Clearwater’s African American cemeteries was on his land. Childs said he is in the process of looking for relatives from that cemetery that was located off of Missouri Ave., where archaeologists are also searching for lost graves.

RELATED: Archaeologists begin scan for lost graves in Clearwater

“All over the Tampa Bay area, it's been proven, it's been found, it's been shown that there are hidden graves that people have overlooked,” said Childs.

Documents from the city of Clearwater show that some bodies were moved from the Missouri Ave. cemetery to the location on Holt Avenue. The city then decided it wanted to move the cemetery again and approached the school district about a possible land swap.

RELATED: How neighbor opposition threatened Clearwater graves neighbors are searching for today

Back in the late 1940s (1948), the city of Clearwater came to the school district and asked for a land swap. They were looking for a property on the corner of Holt Avenue here to put in a pool for that time, an all-African American pool,” said Mascareñas. “But the school district told the city that the only way we would do this land swap would be if the city assured us that all the graves, all 350…gravesites would be relocated. And when that happened, the land swap occurred.”

Robert Young, a funeral home owner who once worked as an attendant for the company contracted to move the graves, said it’s possible that graves without headstones were not moved. Young said it would have been difficult to know where the bodies were located.

RELATED: Former cemetery worker thinks graves from lost black burial ground could still be on school property

While there’s doubt all graves were removed, there’s also hope the city held up its end of the agreement. “The hope is that nothing is here, that the people that did what they were supposed to do back in the 50s exhumed everyone that was supposed to be exhumed and this does nothing more than help the community heal,” said Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP.  “The reality is…that there may be people here, so this is a good check.”  

Archaeologists said they expect to wrap up scanning this week. T2 Utility Engineers and USF will cross-reference their scans and hope to have results within 30 days.

NOTE: The newspaper clipping seen in the above video is attributed to a 1956 article in the Tampa Bay Times via Newspapers.com 

Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10News WTSP. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@wtsp.com. 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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