SAVING NORTH GREENWOOD:
More than a year after archaeologists unearthed dozens of graves from the North Greenwood Cemetery at a vacant Clearwater school property, the building still stands — likely atop even more bodies.
“There is definitely the potential for additional burials below the building,” said Erin McKendry, an archaeologist with Stantec (formerly Cardno).
McKendry was the lead archaeologist on the search for North Greenwood. In 2021, her team discovered 54 graves through ground-penetrating radar and later dug to physically confirm the results.
In a 2020 report to the City of Clearwater, Cardno recommended stakeholders consider demolishing the school. This could allow for further testing and could begin the process of fully restoring the site.
However, McKendry said the most important thing is for all interested parties to have a voice. “Our recommendation stands...which is the community and the different property owners come together and determine what they would like to see done with each of these individual sites,” she said.
Over the past few months, the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP has organized meetings to bring Pinellas County Schools, the City of Clearwater and community members together for these discussions.
“The community is of two differing opinions,” he said. “One group of people would like to leave the bodies where they are. The other group of people would like to have the bodies moved.”
Atkinson says the conversations have inched forward, even if everyone doesn't yet agree.
Pinellas County Schools Associate Superintendent Clint Herbic said the district is prepared to act when the community comes to a consensus. He said demolition is not off the table.
“We've talked about it. We've looked at the gamut. We've looked at all the way from tearing it down, and we've actually…gathered costs to see what it would cost to rehabilitate it as well,” he said.
Records 10 Investigates got from the school district show it would cost $11.8 million to renovate the existing school.
“It is in poor shape, to be honest with you. One of the struggles that we have is as a closed school, we're not able to spend any of our capital outlay dollars to make improvements on it. And so, any improvements that you would have to do to open it up again, you know, we'd have to look for outside sources for that,” he said. “And obviously with the site being a cemetery, we don't have any intention to reopen a school there.”
If the building gets demolished, Herbic says archaeologists would come up with a plan so graves are not further disturbed. The district would work with archaeologists on implementation.
“We've actually had some community members share with us, too, that would it be possible to just take down the walls? Another person suggested we take down walls and leave maybe the front of the building, the facade there,” he said. “So, again, we have a wide range of ideas coming from the community as well about the building.”
The district first learned in 2019 of the possibility of graves at the school site. Community members searching for the St. Matthews Baptist Church cemetery less than two miles away at the FrankCrum property site on Missouri Avenue raised concerns to the local NAACP and shared them with 10 Tampa Bay.
A real estate analyst for the district found documentation of the cemetery in old school records but said old reports indicated the graves had been relocated. Documents show the city of Clearwater established the all-Black cemetery in 1940. It later sold land that included the cemetery to the school district.
By 1954, there was a new plan. The city wanted to build a segregated swimming pool on part of the site, and agreed to a land swap with the district on the condition the city would relocate the graves.
Herbic says he was stunned to learn the property’s history.
“It's the first we have ever heard that there was a cemetery there. And I'm sure that sometime, somewhere in the past, a school district person knew, but for current staff, we had no idea,” he said. “You know, we just didn't you don't look into the records for things like that. And so, we were shocked to discover that. But right away, again, the idea was to work with the community and find a way to do what was right.”
Herbic also said the district also has a responsibility to preserve the cemetery’s history for future generations.
“As a school district, as educators, I think we have a responsibility now to tell the story, make sure our students learn from it — learn from the mistakes of the past, and make sure they're not repeated,” he said. “And I think that's one of the best things that we can do as a school district is to push, you know, that forward and again, work with the community to make sure that their stories are a part of that.”
One such effort is already underway. 10 Investigates reported in October the district and the Clearwater Historical Society plan to install a historical marker at the site. The unveiling ceremony will take place on Saturday, Dec. 3.