CLEARWATER — Archaeologists have verified at least 29 occupied graves in Clearwater Heights that had been left behind during a 1954 cemetery relocation.
After 10 days of work at the North Greenwood Cemetery site, archeologists with engineering firm Cardno found coffins and human remains “in 29 areas” in the residential area, Clearwater officials said.
With urging from the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP and the Clearwater Heights Remembrance Committee, the city of Clearwater in February hired archeologists — in coordination with the University of South Florida’s Florida Public Archaeology Network — to search for signs of human remains in the center of this quiet neighborhood. Cardno will write up its findings, including maps of gravesites and associated artifacts and present a report to those organizations.
The burial ground, on Holt Avenue in Clearwater, is the site of the former North Greenwood Cemetery; its residents were moved seven miles north to Parklawn Cemetery in Dunedin to make way for Curtis Fundamental School and an adjacent community swimming pool. Local residents have complained for years that city officials incorrectly told Black residents that all the bodies had been removed before construction started.
“It all started when a community member could not find one of her relatives and reached out,” said Zeb Atkinson, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP. “There is some anger, and a lot of people just want closure. Hopefully this helps the community heal.”
The mistake was unintentional, Clearwater Communications Director Joelle Castelli said. “There may have been cases where there were no headstones to mark the graves,” she said. “The poorer you were, the less markers you had. Members of the community have said for years there are still bodies there.”
The first step in the excavation was the use of an excavator to drag the topsoil back from the school foundation. Workers also dug up land under a parking lot on the other side of Holt Avenue to search for forgotten graves. The second step, “ground truthing,” saw archaeologists switch to hand tools to carefully scrape soil in a search of name plates and other artifacts indicating occupied graves. The final step, returning the ground to its original state, ended Feb. 12.
“In all four of those secondary tests, researchers found the presence of coffins and human remains,” Castelli said. “These findings confirm that this site is still an active cemetery. Artifacts associated with each grave shaft and individual graves were documented on site and returned to their appropriate original location before the operations were filled back in and restored to as close to their original condition as possible.”
Crews using ground-penetrating radar detected more than 50 graves at the site last year, city officials said. In the first week of February, the excavator had unearthed 25 graves — or grave shafts — at the old cemetery, Atkinson said. Some of the digging uncovered a 1942 dime and a metal grave marker bearing the name William Ridley. City records show that Ridley was buried in 1951 by the Larkin and Gordon Funeral Home.
Families of the forgotten hope the city will come up with a plan for those left behind.
“Ultimately it’s about what happens next,” Atkinson said. “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.”
A video of the excavation can be found at https://www.facebook.com/naacpclearwater.