Last year, ground-penetrating radar revealed that a purportedly empty cemetery in Clearwater, Florida, might not actually be empty. To longtime residents of the area, it wasn’t exactly news.
As Smithsonian reports, the North Greenwood Cemetery opened in 1940 and provided burial plots for members of Clearwater’s Black community until 1954, when the city decided to build a high school and a pool on the land instead. Officials relocated 350 graves several miles north, to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery, but some locals maintained that unmarked graves were never exhumed. Now, researchers from the Florida Public Archaeology Network have teamed up with development company Cardno to excavate any remains that may have been neglected. So far, they’ve unearthed evidence of 29 graves.
“We've uncovered material that you would expect to be associated with graves,” Jeffrey Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, told WJCT. “There's evidence of coffin hardware, decayed remains of coffins, concrete vaults, associated gravestone or headstone materials that are in a kind of disturbed state.”
Not everything is unmarked; they’ve also identified an aluminum grave marker for a Mr. William Ridley, who passed away in 1951. And while it’s possible that certain findings are remnants of graves that were relocated to Parklawn in the 1950s, it seems likely that at least some of them never got moved. As Moates explained during a Facebook Live chat, one of the primary goals of the investigation is to determine which ones.
The Tampa Bay area has seen several similar excavations over the last few years, including a particularly massive undertaking at Zion Cemetery—the city’s first all-Black graveyard, which developers buried in the early 20th century. For many, bringing these untold stories to light is a vital part of combating the systemic racism that made it acceptable for affluent white communities to seize Black burial grounds in the first place. And at North Greenwood Cemetery, the work won’t stop after the dig.
“Ultimately it’s about what happens next,” Zeb Atkinson, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP, told Tampa Bay Newspapers. “We know this is a cemetery and this is school property, and the school hasn’t been used in 20 years. There’s a lot of discussion to be had.”