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Experts scan property around old Curtis Fundamental school for graves in Clearwater

Posted at 3:00 PM, Feb 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-06 17:33:34-05

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Experts are scanning property in Clearwater to see if there are any lost graves.

Thursday, the engineering firm Cardno and archaeologists with the Florida Public Archaeology Network used ground penetrating radar to scan land around the old Curtis Fundamental school.

"Mixed emotions," said Pastor Carlton Childs, as the scan was conducted. "This has been a day we’ve been waiting for a while as you know this was a African American cemetery that the city provided for the neighborhood population in the early 1920s and 30s. This was the only place the city provided for our people."

According to city and the Pinellas County school district officials, the property was a historically African American cemetery. In the 1950s, there was a land swap to make way for a city swimming pool. The district swapping land was contingent that all the graves were removed.

"The assumption was all the bodies there, all the graves had been removed. But it’s at least in the memory of some that there were some graves that may have not been marked, did not have headstones and may still be there," said Bill Horne, the city manager for Clearwater.


Later on, the school district built what was then known as Palmetto Elementary and later on Curtis Fundamental, which was relocated. The building hasn't housed a school for about 15 years.

"A lot of of people have the memory of cemeteries being in certain areas not knowing where their loved ones went to once the property got sold," said Debbie D. Atkinson IV, the president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County branch of the NAACP

The school district and city are collaborating on completing the scans, in coordination with the NAACP.

Recently, Atkinson said FPAN archaeologists also scanned property by the FrankCrum Staffing building on S. Missouri Avenue. Another scan is expected after going through old county records.

"How does something like this happen? Something like this happens because human lives are not valued and over time the memory gets erased. Those people die off that know there were loved ones here. Things get overgrown. Deeds get purchased and that’s how it happens," said Atkinson.

The Homeless Empowerment Program said it was in very early discussion around potentially building more family housing.

"The Pinellas County School Board is handling this matter, and the project is understandably on hold until they have more information. Due to the sensitive nature of this subject and the community impacted, we are patiently waiting to hear back from the county on the status of the property and the next steps they will take," HEP President and CEO Ashley Lowery said in a statement.

The school district said an interim report is expected in 10 days and a final report in about a month. The scan itself could take a few days.

Isabela Mascareñas, the spokesperson for Pinellas County Schools, says whatever step they take will need to be done in the most sensitive, and respectful way.

"While we hope that all the graves were relocated as we thought back in the 1950s, if anything was found, is found, here we will determine then what the next step will be. But that is something that’s a decision we will make collectively," said Mascareñas.

The scan itself could take a couple days to complete.