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'Thank God you found me': Florida officials unearth a fourth forgotten Black cemetery

Archaeologists work to uncover graves at the former site of the Zion cemetery found underneath the Robles Park Village housing complex in Tampa, Fla. Another unmarked African-American cemetery with hundreds of graves has been found at the site of a downtown office building in Clearwater, Fla.
Octavio Jones
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Archaeologists work to uncover graves at the former site of the Zion cemetery found underneath the Robles Park Village housing complex in Tampa, Fla. Another unmarked African-American cemetery with hundreds of graves has been found at the site of a downtown office building in Clearwater, Fla.

An unmarked African American cemetery with hundreds of graves has been found at the site of a downtown office building in Clearwater, Fla. It's at least the fourth abandoned African American cemetery rediscovered in recent years in Florida. The finds are forcing communities to come to terms with their history and racist policies that targeted Black neighborhoods.

Barbara Sorey-Love has experienced some of that history firsthand. She was born in the basement of Clearwater's hospital 69 years ago, and grew up in Clearwater Heights, a neighborhood that no longer exists.

"Back then we were called colored," she says. "That's where the colored mothers and children were housed."

Several years ago, Sorey-Love helped form the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee, a group of people who grew up in the neighborhood before it became a victim of urban renewal. The group began asking questions about the old St. Matthews cemetery. It was closed in the mid-1950s and sold to developers who were supposed to move the graves to a new location.

Using ground penetrating radar and later by excavating, archaeologists found something many residents had suspected — most of the graves had never been moved.

Sorey-Love recently visited the excavation site, now an office building's parking lot.

"I went over and looked in the burial site," she says. "And it was like the skeleton was looking up at me saying, 'Thank God you found me.'"

Archaeologists believe several hundred people may be buried under the parking lot and a building that now stands on the site. It's not the only African American cemetery recently rediscovered in Clearwater. A little over a mile away, an investigation has found dozens of graves at the site of a now shuttered public school. In both cases, community members are working with local officials to decide what to do next.

And it's not just happening in Clearwater. Just across the bay in Tampa, investigations conducted by the Tampa Bay Times helped uncover at least two more African American cemeteries that were abandoned and built over. Some of the graves are under the parking lot at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Hundreds more were found at the site of a public housing complex.

In all these cases, Black residents were told the graves had been relocated.

"There were bodies still there and a large number of them," says Antoinette Jackson, chair of the anthropology department at the University of South Florida says. "That caught everybody's attention."

The cemeteries were all closed in the 1950s, as cities around Florida's Tampa Bay began to grow rapidly in the post-war era. Property that had been developed and used by the Black community was taken for other uses and neighborhoods were wiped out by interstate exchanges. Jackson says the cemeteries were deliberately forgotten.

"Oftentimes," she says, "we don't use the word lost or abandoned. We are really saying erased, physically erased from the landscape for other purposes."

In Clearwater, city council records from the mid-1950s show officials discussed using road improvements as an "inducement to confine Negro home building and purchasing to the existing area."

Jeff Moates, with the Florida Public Archaeology Network, worked on the cemetery investigation in Clearwater. He says assessments levied by the city were "used as a tactic to kind of isolate the African American community. There were certainly policies that further marginalized an already marginalized group of people."

The land was used for a new shopping center. The city paid the developers to move the graves to a new location. But, with the discovery of hundreds of graves still on the site, Clearwater officials are facing tough decisions. The company that now owns the property says it received assurances that the graves had been moved.

At a recent meeting, city councilman Mark Bunker said he was struck by what he saw in the archaeological report.

"We weren't on the commission at that time," he says, "but, the city does have some responsibility in dealing with this."

Another councilman said he wasn't sure the city should be held responsible for something done nearly 70 years ago. Meanwhile, investigations will continue on the site.

The rediscovery of lost or erased Black cemeteries raises many issues, including who's liable for righting past wrongs. A task force created by the state legislature will soon issue a report with recommendations for local and state officials.

University of South Florida anthropologist Antoinette Jackson recently helped create the Black cemetery network, a website and organization linking African American cemeteries that are being rediscovered and investigated around the country. The idea, she says is "to put a face and stories and people and communities on the map and in the public domain."

A bill is also in the works in Congress that would create an African American Burial Grounds Network under the direction of the National Park Service.

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