CLEARWATER, Fla. — Crews are starting to identify lost graves from an African-American cemetery in Clearwater.

What You Need To Know

The Northwood Greenwood cemetery site will be closed to the public during the test excavation. 

They will do it through mechanical excavation, with a backhoe operator, to open up the ground. 

Officials will then use hand tools for the detailed excavation. 

"It’s (a) controlled excavation,” said Jeff Moates, the Florida Public Archaeology Network Regional Director. “So there are a number of archaeologists watching over the work of the backhoe operator. 

“And whenever we see anything that could possibly be an artifact that pops up after the scraping occurs, we have them slow down and take a look at it." 

Rumors of unmarked graves have lingered for decades among the Greenwood community – a childhood memory etched into the minds of people like lifelong resident Diane Stevens. 

“When the rain would soak the soil, some of the bones would come up,” said Stevens. “And our parents would tell us to get out of there, don’t disturb them, that they’re just resting.” 

These are just some of many accounts of encounters with the forgotten souls of the old North Greenwood Cemetery, which operated from 1940-1954. 

Shortly after, the Pinellas County School District got the property through a land swap agreement with the city. But before the school district took the site over the city had removed what it thought were all the graves from the cemetery. 

Last year, the city of Clearwater contracted with the engineering firm Cardno to investigate the property – at the old Curtis Fundamental-Palmetto Elementary School on Holt Avenue. 

The former structure that was the school was scheduled to be demolished to build a homeless center. But those plans are on hold until the Pinellas County School District and Clearwater officials verify if any graves remain at the site.  

Unlike other recent grave discoveries in Tampa, the City of Clearwater knew there were burial sites on the property dating back to the 1950s.  

Cardno, along with the Florida Public Archaeology Network, used ground penetrating radar to survey the area and completed two phases in February and August of 2020. 

A report of ground penetrating radar found evidence of 44 grave-like anomalies. 

They are consistent with graves identified more than two and a half to about five and a half feet deep. 

The investigation also found numerous disturbances that could indicate areas where burials were removed. 

“We’re going to clear off the top soil and look for the remains of those graves that are likely to be in the ground,” said Jeff Moates, regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at USF.  

Moates and the team of researchers and archaeologists also worked on the lost Zion cemetery in Tampa.  

He says they’ve identified a total of seven such cemeteries in the past couple of years.    

Greenwood residents and the Upper Pinellas NAACP want the lost graves to be properly honored, perhaps through a memorial.

“It's the sanctity of human life, or the resting place. The sanctity of the resting place,” said Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP president Zebbie D. Atkinson IV.  

Stevens looked on as crews began excavating the site she’d played in so many years ago – the gravity of the situation weighing on her all these decades later.  

“Why not let our ancestors rest in peace,” she said.