Florida city reckoning with its past as paved over Black cemeteries uncovered

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desecration of black cemeteries

In the first half of the 20th century, Clearwater Heights, Florida, was a Black neighborhood — thriving, proud and anchored by faith. But being in the segregated south, African Americans couldn’t stay at the White hotel, walk on the beach or swim in the bay. In death, they were laid to rest in segregated graveyards.

Those cemeteries 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.

“It’s not an imaginary thing that I seen. It’s what I seen with my own eyes,” Larkin told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

In 1984, Larkin, now 82 years old, watched a construction crew dig a trench through the site of a “relocated” Black cemetery.

“But I remember the parking lot where the engineers– traffic engineer was cutting the lines through,” Larkin said, “and they cut through two coffins. That was my first knowledge of seeing it because I walked out there, and I seen it myself.”

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.

Rebecca O’Sullivan and Erin McKendry are archeologists for a company called Cardno. Cardno was hired by the city to map the desecration.

“These individuals were loved. They were family members; they were fathers and mothers,” McKendry told Pelley. “And they were interred with love.”

“People deserve to be treated with respect,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s the most important thing.”

DURHAM, NC – FEBRUARY 5TH: Michael Williams, a descendant of one of the African American families buried in Geer Cemetery, helps clean up the cemetery with community volunteers in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for NBC News)

McKendry and O’Sullivan pushed ground penetrating radar over a segregated cemetery where an office site stands today. They found 328 likely graves, many, under the parking lot, perhaps a few under the building and more 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?” Pelley asked.

“It’s possible,” O’Sullivan said.

Not far away, the archeologists probed another former cemetery. There, 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 were not removed,” McKendry said.

Cardno found the proof last year. It excavated just deep enough to confirm what ground penetrating radar had suggested. 

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.

“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,” McKendry said.

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Michael Bailey, a trailblazer in the field of photojournalism and a profound political writer, possesses the exceptional ability to distill complex political issues into accessible narratives that resonate with readers of all backgrounds. As the vanguard of the editorial team, Michael not only serves as a new media correspondent but also showcases his distinct talent as a photojournalist. His portfolio is a testament to his expertise in crafting news stories and intimate profiles that vividly portray the cultural, social, economic, and political journeys of minorities, both in South Carolina and beyond. With a rich tapestry of experience spanning media, business, and politics, Michael has emerged as a highly regarded voice and a sought-after commentator, offering invaluable insights into the challenges faced by people of color.

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