Florida officials recently uncovered a forgotten Black cemetery near the site of an office building in downtown Clearwater.
The discoveries are forcing communities to confront how racist polices targeted and destroyed Black neighborhoods, NPR reported.
When the Clearwater Heights neighborhood became a victim of urban renewal in the 1950s, developers were supposed to move graves at St. Matthews Cemetery to a new location.
A few years ago, members of the Clearwater Heights Reunion Committee who grew up in the neighborhood began asking questions about whether the graves were relocated.
Ground penetrating radar and excavations show that many of the graves were never moved. Hundreds of people could be buried under the parking lot and downtown office building, experts said.
Officials in Florida uncovered at least three other abandoned Black cemeteries in recent years. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill over the summer approving the establishment of the 10-member Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task Force after they were discovered. The task force is made up of archaeologists, educators and community preservationists.
Other lost gravesites have been found in the Hillsborough County area and in Leon County. Some graves were found under the Tropicana Field parking lot.
“There were bodies still there and a large number of them,” Antoinette Jackson, chair of the anthropology department at the University of South Florida, told NPR. “That caught everybody’s attention.”
In each of these cases, Black residents were told the graves had been relocated.
Land in Black communities was taken and used for other purposes during a period of rapid growth in the area in the 1950s. Jackson said the Black neighborhoods were not lost accidentally.
“We don’t use the word lost or abandoned,” Jackson said. “We are really saying erased, physically erased from the landscape for other purposes.”
Some experts say as many as 3,000 abandoned Black cemeteries could be buried across the state. But time is a limiting factor in maximizing the discovery of abandoned cemeteries.
The Florida task force will sunset its mission by March 11, 2022. Advocates want to ensure the unearthed cemeteries are dignified and protected.
A bill in the work in Congress would create African American Burial Grounds Network under the direction of the National Park Service.
The company that owns the office building in Clearwater said it was assured the cemeteries had been removed. Investigations are set to continue at the site.
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