Nov 30, 2022
Uncovering Black cemeteries paved over in Florida Transcript
In the 1950s, in Clearwater, Florida, Black cemeteries were supposed to be relocated for various development projects. But many graves were never relocated and the cemeteries were paved over. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:01):
No one can say when human remains began surfacing in Clearwater, Florida. There was the pipeline crew that turned up bones in a trench. Later, remains of the dead were found at an elementary school, a swimming pool, and an office building. It seemed like a curse for what had been done in the name of progress and greed in the old, segregated south. The truth of what happened in the forties and fifties was meant to stay buried, but in a neighborhood called Clearwater Heights, residents with long memories recognized a grave injustice.
Speaker 15 (00:41):
The story will continue in a moment.
Speaker 1 (00:47):
In the first half of the 20th century, Clearwater Heights was a Black neighborhood, thriving, proud, and anchored by faith.
Speaker 2 (00:57):
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Bethany CME, and New Zion Missionary Baptist Church were all located on the Heights.
Speaker 1 (01:06):
And so is St. Matthew’s Baptist, where we heard stories of childhood in the Heights, including those of Diane Stevens and Eleanor Breland.
Speaker 2 (01:16):
They had businesses, barber shops. There were hairdressers over there. There was a cab company that only had one cab, but it was still a cab company.
Speaker 3 (01:31):
Right there on Greenwood, they had different places where even Ray Charles performed there. Also, James Brown performed up there.
Speaker 1 (01:39):
But even the famous could not stay in a white Clearwater hotel, or walk on the beach, or swim in the bay. Segregation bound their lives and exiled even their memory to segregated graveyards.
How many of you believe you have ancestors in one of these cemeteries? About half of you.
The segregated cemeteries of Clearwater were sacred ground, until the ground became valuable. In the 1950s, headlines announced that the City of Clearwater made a deal on moving a negro cemetery. Hundreds of African American bodies were to be reburied to make way for a swimming pool. A department store was planned for the site of another Black cemetery, where again, the bodies were to be moved. But O’Neal Larkin remembers many years later his first revelation that something was terribly wrong.
O’Neal Larkin (02:42):
It’s not an imaginary thing that I seen. It’s what I seen with my own eyes.
Speaker 1 (02:47):
Larkin, 82 years old, watched a construction crew in 1984 dig a trench through the site of a relocated Black cemetery.
O’Neal Larkin (02:59):
But I remember the parking lot where the engineers, traffic engineer was cutting the lines through, and they cut through two coffins. That was my first knowledge of seeing it, because I walked out there and I seen it myself.
Speaker 1 (03:14):
In 2019, the Tampa Bay Times reported many segregated cemeteries in Florida had been essentially paved. It was then that the modern city of Clearwater decided to exhume the truth.
Speaker 5 (03:29):
People deserve to be treated with respect. That’s the most important thing.
Speaker 1 (03:34):
Rebecca O’Sullivan and Erin Mckendry are archeologists for a company called Cardinal. Cardinal was hired by the city to map the desecration.
Erin Mckendry (03:45):
These individuals were loved. They were family members. They were fathers and mothers, and they were interred with love.
Speaker 1 (03:56):
Mckendry and O’Sullivan pushed ground-penetrating radar over a segregated cemetery where this office site stands today. This overlay shows part of their discovery. 328 likely graves, many under the parking lot, perhaps a few under the building, and more there on the right beneath South Missouri Avenue. 550 graves are in the cemetery’s record. Mckendry and O’Sullivan found evidence of 11 having been moved in the 1950s.
So there may be hundreds of bodies still at that site?
Speaker 5 (04:37):
Speaker 1 (04:39):
Not far away, the archeologists probed another former cemetery-
Speaker 5 (04:44):
Where there’s more what looks like the intact graves set up.
Speaker 1 (04:48):
Here in the 1950s, rather than integrate the white community pool, the city said it would move hundreds of bodies to build a Black swimming pool and a Black school.
But the bodies weren’t removed?
Erin Mckendry (05:02):
But the bodies were not removed.
Speaker 1 (05:08):
Cardinal found the proof last year. It excavated just deep enough to confirm what ground-penetrating radar had suggested.
Speaker 7 (05:17):
It is their resting place.
Speaker 1 (05:19):
A prayer was said over the site. Then they planed the sand, and sieved a century of time in search of grave markers or tributes. Inevitably, relics included human remains, teeth at the office building site, and bones at the school, which had closed in 2008 because it was obsolete.
Are there grave sites underneath the school?
Erin Mckendry (05:48):
All of the information and the data that we collected does indicate that there are additional burials likely below the footprint of that school building.
Speaker 8 (05:57):
I would be very surprised if they didn’t find any bones when they were over there.
O’Neal Larkin (06:01):
They had to.
Speaker 1 (06:02):
O’Neal Larkin watched the excavation and imagined the groundbreaking at the school construction site in 1961.
O’Neal Larkin (06:10):
To dig the foundation to put this school upon, they had to hit some form of remains.
Speaker 1 (06:19):
It’s likely some families could not afford a tombstone, but the archeologists found graves were marked.
Speaker 9 (06:27):
Doesn’t it look like one of those metal plaque things?
Erin Mckendry (06:29):
This is a marker that would have been used initially after the burial, if the stone was not ready to be placed, and in some cases, this is all that would have been used to mark the location of a burial.
Speaker 1 (06:42):
Erin Mckendry showed us Cardinal’s catalog of evidence.
It’s a mercury dime.
Erin Mckendry (06:47):
It is a mercury dime.
Speaker 1 (06:48):
This dime, new in ’42, was among many tributes left with the dead.
Erin Mckendry (06:54):
We also found this brass wedding ring at approximately the same location and the same depth as the dime.
Speaker 10 (06:59):
Speaker 1 (06:59):
The tributes and disturbed human remains were carefully reburied exactly where they were found, pending a decision on what to do next.
If you could speak to these people who were interred and then lost, what would you tell them?
Antoinette Jackson (07:20):
I hear you. I’m working. I want to recognize the contributions, the life you lived. I recognize and see your humanity.
The cheapest land. The worst places.
Speaker 1 (07:34):
Anthropologist Antoinette Jackson leads the African American Burial Ground Project at the University of South Florida. She’s building a database of desecrated cemeteries.
Antoinette Jackson (07:47):
Not just Clearwater’s, nationally. From New York, all the way out toward Texas, and all the way down to South Florida, where these cemeteries have been built over, erased, marginalized, underfunded, and need support in order to make them whole and have this history known.
This is not an isolated story, unfortunately.
Speaker 1 (08:08):
So far, Jackson has listed about 70 effaced Black cemeteries nationwide.
Antoinette Jackson (08:15):
Underneath the current housing-
Speaker 1 (08:16):
Under housing, freeways, and the county owned parking lot of Tropicana Field, home to baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
Antoinette Jackson (08:26):
What we want to bring forward is the memory, the knowledge that these sites were there. These places, these cemeteries, these families were there. Lived, died, worked. Contributed to our country, to their communities, to our hometowns.
Speaker 1 (08:41):
Is there evidence of white cemeteries being lost, abandoned, forgotten in the way that these are?
Antoinette Jackson (08:48):
There are abandoned cemeteries across the board. There are cemeteries that are not only African American cemeteries or Black cemeteries that have been in some way desecrated, but the issue is more acute with Black cemeteries because of issues like slavery, segregation, in which this particular community were legally and intentionally considered lesser than or marginalized by law.
Speaker 1 (09:16):
When a cemetery disappears, what is lost?
Speaker 12 (09:21):
Speaker 13 (09:22):
Zebbie Atkinson (09:22):
History. Respect. A great deal of respect.
Speaker 13 (09:26):
Zebbie Atkinson (09:26):
Because you can’t no longer visit-
O’Neal Larkin (09:29):
Zebbie Atkinson (09:30):
… and bring closure to your own soul.
Speaker 12 (09:32):
A cemetery is supposed to be your final resting place.
O’Neal Larkin (09:36):
Speaker 15 (09:37):
Speaker 1 (09:39):
In Clearwater, they’re debating how to honor those entombed beneath the school, South Missouri Avenue, and the property of the FrankCrum Company, which bought its headquarters for its staffing business decades after the cemetery was erased.
Zebbie Atkinson (09:57):
I’m sure that when they purchased that property, they didn’t know that there were bodies there.
Speaker 17 (10:01):
There’s no femur.
Zebbie Atkinson (10:03):
So the head would be facing-
Speaker 1 (10:03):
Zebbie Atkinson heads the Clearwater NAACP.
What would you say to someone who might make the argument that disturbing Missouri Avenue, disturbing the FrankCrum Corporation, disturbing the school, is way too much effort at this point in time?
Zebbie Atkinson (10:21):
I would say that that’s not their call. They have no family buried there.
Speaker 1 (10:26):
Atkinson is helping lead the conversation of what to do now, among descendants, businesses, and the city.
Speaker 17 (10:33):
You see the teeth-
Zebbie Atkinson (10:33):
Speaker 17 (10:34):
Yeah. That are right there.
Zebbie Atkinson (10:36):
People want to have the bodies moved to a place where they can properly memorialize them. Some of the descendant community wants to let the people stay where they are. Those are the type of things that need to be worked out.
Speaker 1 (10:49):
How do you work them out?
Zebbie Atkinson (10:50):
We have to sit and talk about it. I mean, there is no easy answer with that.
Speaker 1 (10:55):
Whether the failure in the last century to move the graves was deceit, incompetence, or indifference, we do not know. But today, Clearwater is spending $270,000 to learn the truth. The city told us it is searching for a compromise that will honor the dead. The FrankCrum Company told us it wants to be part of the community solution. Ideas include monuments, but for a few, like O’Neal Larkin, there’s only one route to justice.
O’Neal Larkin (11:29):
Tear it down.
Speaker 1 (11:30):
Tear the building down?
O’Neal Larkin (11:31):
Tear it down. Tear down that building, as far as I’m concerned. Tear the school down. Make it a shrine of memories that people can go and use it in a proper way of remembering, to treat them with more dignity than what this has been treated.
Speaker 1 (11:49):
We noticed dignity was treated gently in the white cemeteries of Clearwater. In this one, we found a monument to a confederate soldier, his grave decorated today with a fresh banner of racism. But when this confederate sacred ground found itself blocking the road to progress, the small cemetery under those trees in the middle was granted a reverent, circular detour.
Of those citizens buried in the Black cemeteries of Clearwater, we have images of only these. The Reverend Arthur L. Jackson, the Reverend Joseph Hines, and Mack Dixon Senior, who was buried beside his wife, Florence, three children, and two grandchildren. We do not know the faces of 500 more, who remain forever bound by segregation and lost to the memory of time.