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Archeologists confirm active cemetery at Clearwater property

The property was once the site of the St. Matthews Baptist Church cemetery
Cemetery
Posted at 11:12 PM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 23:12:46-05

CLEARWATER, Fl.--  — Pastor Carlton Childs stands on Madison Ave., recalling the neighborhood he grew up in, Clearwater Heights.

“This was the Matt Dixon subdivision which my great grandfather owned. He came here in 1905 purchased this property and this became a thriving community,” Childs said.

He remembers the corner store, the lounge, the elementary school, alongside the conversations about St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery, a historically African-American cemetery.

“I do remember the rocky and white sand out behind the school that we always thought was a little unusual,” Childs said. “And when I saw that white dirt over there the other day they were digging up I said oh man that brings back memories.”

Childs said his great grandfather was buried there.

“We found his original headstone at park at Parklawn Cemetery. Several family members had original headstones that were properly moved and we thank God for that, that there were some that were properly moved but there was a lot of ones that did not have headstones that got left behind,” he said.

The property changed hands a few times over the years. The gravesites were supposed to have been moved to another location in Dunedin. But the community had concerns for years.

“If you look back historically this is a systemic problem that has plagued the black community for so long, whether it is places like Rosewood, Florida or other cemetery sites that have been you know red lined or imminent domain-ed away from the community,” said Zebbie D. Atkinson IV, the president the of the NAACP Clearwater Upper Pinellas County Branch.

The city contracted with the firm Cardno to survey the property, which is now home to the FrankCrum company headquarters.

“It’s not his fault but somewhere in the past someone had the authority to make the decision and I think that something is going to be said,” said Childs.

Archeologists first used ground penetrating radar, identifying dozens of possible graves. This week, they used ground truthing in a smaller area.

The city said archeologists found nine grave shafts, coffin staining, an intact coffin, two intact skeletons in two grave shafts investigated further, as well as artifacts that would have been left behind by loved ones. The city said that included things like a ceramic vase fragment, and two pennies.

As a result of intact coffins and human remains, archeologists concluded it is an active cemetery.

“I was glad that the results proved to be true and hopefully that can start the community to be at ease knowing that their voices have finally been heard,” said Atkinson.

Based on the contract with Cardno, the city says the archeological work is considered complete. The contract included that if human remains or graves were uncovered the the work at the property is complete.

“Typically a recommendation is that the city engage the community in conversation, as the community engages itself in conversation, about what they believe should be the next steps. Basically we’re talking about how do you memorialize a situation like this,” said city manager Bill Horne.

Matt Crum, the co-president of FrankCrum, shared this statement after learning the results:

“Today we learned that archeologists found a coffin and confirmed human remains on the FrankCrum property as part of the ground truthing study that began on Monday. On behalf of myself and my family, I want to acknowledge the past, take pause to learn what we can about it, and pay our respects to the African American families, both present and past, who call this community home. This community is active in their pursuit of the facts and today is an important day in that process.

Many constructive ideas are being shared about solutions and we want to continue to work with the community and the City of Clearwater to collaborate.”

Last year, archeologists also found dozens of graves at a property on Holt Ave., where the old Curtis Fundamental School sits. It was once the North Greenwood Cemetery.

"The squeaky wheel does get the oil. So even though in this instance it’s been over 60 years in some instances where the community has been saying hey there used to be a cemetery there. In the end it is finally you know being surveyed and truthed and to come to the realization that yes there are still remains here," said Atkinson.

“We’re still living in a time of injustice and racism but there’s hope. There’s light at the end of the tunnel there are some good people in the world there are people that want to see the right thing done,” said Childs.