44 African-American Graves Found Under Florida School District Parking Lot

Illustration for article titled 44 African-American Graves Found Under Florida School District Parking Lot
Photo: Pinellas County School District parking lot where 44 African American graves were discovered. Photo by Scott Keeler (Tampa Bay Times)

America has a long history of racial oppression and, apparently, just as long a history of sweeping racism under the rug—or, in this case, the parking lot.

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According to the Tampa Bay Times, Cardno, a private archaeology firm hired by the city of Clearwater and the Pinellas County School Board, has discovered what appears to be 44 graves, or “grave-like anomalies,” from a long-forgotten African-American cemetery under a Florida parking lot owned by the school district.

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This discovery marks the third since August where archaeologists have found lost African-American graves in the Tampa Bay area.

The saga started last August when the Tampa Housing Authority announced that graves from the segregation-era all-black Zion Cemetery were discovered still under their original burial grounds which now reside under five Robles Park Village public housing apartment buildings as well as privately-owned warehouses and a tow lot on the 3700 block of N Florida Avenue. Around 300 caskets were identified using ground-penetrating radar, which was also used in Cardno’s discovery.

Then in November, the Hillsborough County School District made a similar discovery. Ridgewood Cemetery, which had been around in the mid-20th century, was still under the King High School campus where archeologists found, through the same technology, 145 graves.

According to the Times, archaeologists believe that most of Zion’s more than 800 and all of Ridgewood’s estimated 250 caskets remain in the ground while the headstones have been moved.

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As for Clearwater, the name of the cemetery found under their parking lot, which has been unused, is unknown but referred to as “North Greenwood Cemetery.” According to a report by Cardno, besides the 44 that were discovered, there may still be additional graves “beneath the footprint” of a school district building.

In a news conference with Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch and Clint Herbic, associate superintendent for Pinellas schools, Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne addressed the discovery saying, “The report highlighted the need for continued investigation.”

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Atkinson weighed in saying, “It’s an unfortunate situation that America has the history it has and has done very little if anything to make amends for the atrocities of the past. We need to work together to find the answer so all hearts are satisfied in the end.”

According to the Times, there were plans for the property the lost graves were discovered under which have now been disrupted:

The city, the school district and the Homeless Empowerment Program announced in July they would team up for what is believed to be a first-of-its kind project. The school district was going to lease a parcel just west of the nonprofit’s North Greenwood campus to the nonprofit.

The Homeless Empowerment Program would then build as many as 39 affordable housing units on the lot. Included in the property leased to the nonprofit would be a nearby 1.3-acre lot donated by the city to the school district.

In return, the school district would agree to run the nonprofit’s adult education programs.

Herbic said he’s been in contact with the Homeless Empowerment Program and said they’ll work to salvage the affordable housing project.

“This doesn’t mean that that project has to come to an end,” he said. “Maybe we just kind of take a look at our property ... and tweak those plans a little bit.”

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Horne said the next step for Clearwater is to give Cardno the greenlight to validate the radar’s findings by digging just close enough to the graves to confirm their existence without touching them. The firm’s final report should be done by the end of March and Clearwater officials will start consulting with the community about what happens moving forward. Atkinson said he’ll likely convene a meeting to that end.

“Now that we’re here we’re here, and it’s how do we best move forward in a manner that serves all parties involved and the community?” he asked.

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That’s a damn good question. We hope answers will come very soon.

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

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DISCUSSION

Build whatever you want on my grave...it won’t bother me or my family, because it’s what I’ve done in life that matters. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to do what I wanted with my life. The families of those who suffered under the suffocating weight of enforced poverty and subjugation may justly feel otherwise.

I don’t have any good ideas about rehabilitating a graveyard desecrated generations ago, where records of who is buried where and who their living kin are have long been lost.