In Clearwater, Florida last century, segregation followed people into the grave. Now the injustices of the past are resurfacing.
After human remains began emerging from the ground at a school, a swimming pool, and an office building, archeologists have discovered that graves from segregated cemeteries had been built over, their previously interred bodies now buried beneath the subsequent development.
To help right this wrong, a Florida state congresswoman is now pushing legislation to find and repair these forgotten historic cemeteries.
One of Clearwater’s destroyed cemeteries, the North Greenwood Cemetery, had served the Black community before the city decided to relocate the graves in the mid-1950s. The city used the land to build a school and swimming pool for Black residents, rather than integrating the white community pool. At the time, the city had said it would move the interred bodies to a nearby cemetery. But dozens of unmarked graves had been left behind, only to be discovered decades later.
One of those graves belonged to Lois Saylor Bell’s paternal grandmother, who had died when Bell’s father was young. Bell’s father had moved away from Florida after his mother’s death, and years later, when he returned to Florida, he sought out his mother’s grave. According to Bell, her father found out that his mother’s body had never been relocated.
Bell hopes her father, now in his late 80s, can find a conclusion emotionally. But the situation is complicated, she said, by the fact that her grandmother’s final resting place became a school where Black children were educated.
“To get him some type of closure hopefully before he expires would be great,” Bell said. “But at the same time, this was a school where a lot of Blacks actually attended the school. And to disturb that would be actually disturbing the graves again.”
Lifelong Clearwater resident Diane Stephens grew up near the former North Greenwood Cemetery. Today she recalls a childhood of watching the physical and emotional ramifications of disturbing people’s final resting places.
“When I was smaller, the rain, when it would saturate the ground, bones would come up,” Stephens said. “And we would go out there, and my parents would tell us to just leave them there — they’re looking. They’re looking for their descendants, and they’re looking for a resting place.”
At another abandoned Black cemetery in Clearwater, disturbed graves now rest underneath an office building’s parking lot. The site had previously been where the St. Matthews Baptist Church and three other churches established a cemetery and buried the neighborhood’s residents. The neighborhood was called Clearwater Heights, and its residents were predominantly Black. The neighborhood no longer exists today.
Carlton Childs Sr., whose great-grandfather founded Clearwater Heights, said that, when the cemetery land was sold in the mid-1950s, unmarked graves were likely never moved. Dignity in death, it seemed, was afforded to those who had enough money in life to buy a headstone.
In uncovering the truth of what happened to his community’s ancestors, Childs said that, when a cemetery disappears, so does trust.
“Who is going to be real and transparent with us about what can be done?” Childs asked. “And who is going to take the responsibility for owning up to what has been done to our ancestors, and to our people, and to the generations to come?”
Florida Rep. Fentrice Driskell hopes to help with at least part of Childs’ request.
Because Florida has discovered effaced and erased Black cemeteries all over the state, Driskell this past spring introduced a bill that would create a state agency to help find these cemeteries and to figure out some way to memorialize them for future generations.
Driskell’s Abandoned African American Cemeteries bill (HB 1215) would have created an Office of Historic Cemeteries to coordinate research, repair, restoration, and maintenance efforts at all historic cemeteries. It also sought funding to create an Abandoned African American Cemeteries Advisory Council.
Driskell’s bill passed its state House committees with unanimous support but died in the Senate. The congresswoman said she plans to reintroduce the bill in a future legislative session.
When asked if she had a message for those she is trying to represent, the people lying in vanishing graveyards, Driskell said she would tell them that their lives mattered — and still have meaning today.
“And although we cannot change what happened to them, we can certainly try to right those wrongs present day by acknowledging the wrong that happened to them and committing our present-day resources and faculties to making sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”