Descendants of those buried in a cobbled black cemetery want the bodies to be moved or remembered

A recent discovery of hundreds of bodies belonging to a historic black cemetery in Clearwater, Fla. has sparked controversy over what to do next among family descendants, the city and current property owners where the bodies have rested for decades .

“It’s heartbreaking … people knew the graves were there and they purposely built buildings on top of the graves,” said Carlton Childs, a descendant of one of those buried in the cemetery.

Childs, 65, says he grew up in Clearwater and heard rumors that a graveyard was buried in the predominantly black neighborhood of Clearwater Heights.

“We always knew there were graves there, but we never really knew that many were still there because we were told they had been moved to a different burial site,” Childs said.

What is now a private company parking lot was formerly a black cemetery attached to an early 20th-century church. Over the years, increasing questions from family descendants surrounding the buried bodies have sparked an investigation by archaeologists and black activists in 2019 to find out the truth about the rumors of buried bodies. On Aug. 31, 2021, Stantec archaeologists announced their findings after using ground-penetrating radar to find 328 graves buried in rows believed to be from the St. Matthews Baptist Church cemetery, according to a Tampa report Bay Times.

“When they did the truth on that property, it was a coffin with a window in it and you could see a person’s face and it had several gold teeth and you could still tell, wow, that’s a person,” said Zebbie D Atkinson , President of the NAACP Clearwater Upper Pinellas Branch.

“My great-grandfather was the owner of this property, we have relatives who were buried there, he was buried there,” Childs said.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that in 1955 the church could not pay city fees for the cemetery, prompting the church to sell the two-and-a-half-acre property. Childs claims a local undertaker agreed at the time to move the bodies to another cemetery on the north end of the precinct, but not all of the bodies were moved.

“If you had money to get a headstone, and if you had a headstone, they found you and took you away, and if not, they probably left you there,” Childs said.

Meanwhile, the property spent the last 67 years developing into a department store and then handing it over to the City of Clearwater before FrankCrum, a private recruitment firm that confirmed to the Atlanta Black Star that it worked with the city and activists who buried the Explore bodies on his property.

Childs says his great-grandfather, Matt Dixon Sr., was buried in the cemetery in 1939 and was moved to another cemetery on the north end of the county because he had a headstone but other family members were also buried on the property, including his sister, were left behind. He admits he has mixed feelings when he learns of the fate of some of his loved ones, as over the years the owners could have done more to address the buried bodies but have not.

“Something needs to be done, something should be done, someone should be held accountable,” Childs said.

A spokeswoman for the city of Clearwater says there are two locations in the city with historic black cemeteries that contain large numbers of bodies, North Greenwood Cemetery and the former St. Matthews Baptist Church. The city paid most of the cost of examining the burial sites, totaling just over $270,000, and private business owner FrankCrum, who occupied the property, also paid some of the cost. The Times reports that the 328 bodies discovered may be just a fraction of the total number of bodies buried, which could exceed 550.

“We always knew there were bodies there, we just didn’t know the extent,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson also draws attention to the buried bodies. He says he understands the frustration that family members like Childs feel when they know the fate of their dead loved ones, but he also recognizes the challenges that await the parties involved, including family members and community activists, the city and FrankCrum. Atkinson says questions that have proven difficult to answer include what to do with the bodies.

“Some people wanted the bodies to be moved, others wanted the bodies to stay there,” Atkinson said. He continues that everyone involved is working on next steps, which would include a meeting to find an answer as to what to do with the bodies.

Childs says he’s open to a memorial or historical marker if it’s not possible to move all the bodies without damaging them, but he says he will refuse to stand by.

“For what happened back then to our ancestors, and we just refuse to stand around and do nothing and say nothing,” Childs said. Descendants of those buried in a cobbled black cemetery want the bodies to be moved or remembered

James Brien

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