HistoryJohn Lawrence

Excavation seeks those left behind in 1954 cemetery relocation

By John Lawrence

The earth has been pulled back from the foundation of the Clearwater Intermediate School on Hoyt Avenue, preparing the ground for archeologists to look for human remains.

At the request of Clearwater/Upper Pinellas chapter of the NAACP and the Clearwater Heights Remembrance Committee, archeologists from Cardno engineering firm and the Florida Public Archaeology Network are  looking for any bodies that may have been left behind in 1954 when a cemetery was moved to Dunedin.

The site is the former Greenwood Cemetery, where African Americans began burying local residents in 1940, said Rebecca O’Sullivan, an archaeologist with Cardno. The dig began last week when a construction excavator used its bucket to remove topsoil. The next step is to use hand tools to gently remove dirt until a marker or other artifact is found that indicates human remains are present, O’Sullivan said.

“They probably won’t find a complete coffin, because in World War II they started to use pressboard instead of wood,” said Zeb Atkins, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP. He was on site Monday to watch over the work. “We are hoping for closure.”

The occupants of the cemetery, which was surrounded by woods and open land at the time, were moved seven miles north to Parklawn Cemetery in Dunedin to make way for the construction of Curtis Fundamental School and an adjacent community swimming pool. Though their forebears are now at rest in Parklawn Cemetery in Dunedin, local residents have complained for years that some family members had been left behind in the move.

“A member of the community told us that she could not find one of her relatives,” Atkins said.  “We are making sure we can help the community find closure, to begin healing.” Atkins and the city hired Cardno and USF to find out the truth, through a process adequately described as, “ground-truthing.”

Archaeologist Rebecca O’Sullivan of Cardno

Local resident Alphonse Currington remembers hunting rabbits in the fields and woods around the cemetery as a boy. He said he realizes cemeteries are sometimes moved. He said his grandmother, Nora Eleanor Shaw, was one of the bodies now resting 7 miles north. “I remember when they dug the graves up and moved her up to Dunedin.”

So far, Cardno, using ground penetrating radar, has detected 50 possible gravesites where the tall piles of dirt line both sides of Hoyt Avenue. O’Sullivan has so far uncovered a 1942 dime and a metal grave marker bearing the name “William Ridley.” Ridley was buried in 1951 by the Larkin and Gordon Funeral Home, O’Sullivan said.

City officials believe the mistake was unintentional.

“There may have been cases where there were no headstones to mark the graves,” city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said. “Members of the community have said for years there are still bodies there.”

Feature photo by Myriams-Fotos on Pixabay

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