CLEARWATER, Fla. — Exactly where the bodies lie underneath Jacqueline Hayes’ feet on the acre of land at 2698 South Drive is somewhat of a riddle waiting to be solved. Most of the graves are unmarked, and although published obituaries name some of those buried at the site, it’s impossible to know precisely where.
Still, Hayes was admiring what she could see above ground during a visit on a Friday in October. Scattered across were aged headstones and a jigsaw puzzle of memories. The exact number of marked graves was unclear.
“There are 14, I think,” said one of the three people she had invited along.
“Oh, I heard 23.”
“Last time I heard, it was 33,” says another. They burst into laughter, submitting to the uncertainty. A few feet away, a stuffed animal sat on top of a fallen headstone that marked baby Samuel, buried at just 4 months old in 1896. It’s unknown which came first, his grave or the cemetery.
It’s the only intact Black graveyard in the city of Clearwater. The quest to save Whispering Souls African American Cemetery, where Hayes stood, was won by one descendant, a relentless historian, and the community that surrounded them.
But just 5 miles away, another battle continues to brew.
The segregation-era St. Matthews Baptist Church’s graveyard has been paved over, leaving ancestors suffocating underneath the parking lot of a corporation’s headquarters. The company is now battling with the city over whose responsibility it is to move the graves, an endeavor that will likely cost millions.
Their story is only a slice in the recent nationwide movement to preserve the cemeteries left behind. As more destroyed graveyards are found across the country, many Black Americans wonder if there can be a productive future without reverence for the past. They are returning to the buried places, to search for their roots and protect land amid anti-Blackness and the whitewashing of American history.
Tampa Bay, Florida, is ground zero.
A sacred history that’s hidden
On most days, the peace that lives at Clearwater’s revived Black cemetery sits uninterrupted. It’s an odd feat given it sits a few blocks from busy U.S. 19. Somehow, the steady humming of car engines blends with the birds’ tunes and the rustling of leaves. Moss drips from the oak tree that’s commanding attention at the center of the graveyard.
When Hayes visits, her thick Boston accent cuts sharply through the Southern air like a hot knife on butter.
Ancestors lay, resting, in the gaps between marked graves. In total, records suggest there are 130. Their names are preserved in a Google Doc that’s organized alphabetically and clogged with mysteries.
1) Ervin Alexander unknown – 1935
2) Rebeca Altmore unknown – 1922
3) George Anderson unknown – 1924
And so on.
Charlie Smith, Hayes’ grandfather, was the last to be buried there in 1973. He was one of the first Black folks in Safety Harbor to build a house in the 1920s, and he helped pave the town’s Main Street. Because he got a lot of work, he was able to own plots of land. His name was the last listed on the deed to the cemetery when they started cleaning it up decades later.
A plan is underway for a $100,000 memorial that will list the names of those buried. It will include an illustration of a Sankofa bird, whose name derived from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The symbol represents a return to the knowledge of ancestors. It’s not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten, the proverbs states.
To future generations, the graveyard will no longer be lost.
A handful of other Black cemeteries across Tampa Bay are confronted with a much more grim fate. Some, now in the middle of city redevelopment efforts and major pushback from advocates.
Residents’ tales of unrecognizable voices and unfamiliar noises floating through Robles Park Village, a 1950s public housing complex in Tampa, were often dismissed, until news broke in the Tampa Bay Times that they were living on top of hundreds of bodies. The city’s housing authority is still working through plans for a memorial.
Twenty miles south, two Black cemeteries in St. Petersburg now sit underneath Interstate 175: Evergreen and Moffett. Steps away, land that was once Oaklawn Cemetery sits below VIP Lot 1, where Tampa Bay Rays fans park to watch the baseball team compete at Tropicana Field.
Very little about the history remains in the landscape. It’s almost as if they were never there.
“These cemeteries are sacred,” says anthropologist Antoinette Jackson, who leads the African American Burial Ground Project at the University of South Florida. Right now, she said, is a critical moment when people are realizing the importance of the knowledge within these places.
The wave of protests in 2020 fueled a lot of the national action around preserving this land, Jackson says. It’s one of the few cries for racial justice that outlasted the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. It took Jackson by surprise that everything got so much traction.
“Once you open that up,” she says, “people are energized to continue.”
Tampa Bay churches, universities, politicians, and NAACP chapters have come together, all inspired to protect past generations. House Bill 49, also coined the “Florida’s abandoned cemeteries bill,” was signed into law earlier this year. It was introduced by state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, and supports education around the sites as well as their repair. $1 million was allocated for abandoned cemetery research and restoration.
In the nation’s capital, Congress passed a similar preservation act late last year, which authorized $3 million in grants, but the money has yet to be appropriated.
“You can start to piece together histories of entire people and communities based on the fact that the cemetery was there,” Jackson says. When they’re missing, it’s more detective work.
During slavery, Black folks were often buried on plantation grounds, with rocks as the only markers. As they gained freedom and found themselves excluded from white burial grounds, their own cemeteries emerged. Through segregation, a reality was set up to ensure Black people didn’t disturb white people’s peace — in life, or in death.
With integration came the decline of some Black cemeteries, as they were paved over or discarded.
A nationwide battle to preserve land
What’s unfolding in Tampa Bay is not an isolated story. It’s repeating across the country. In Pennsylvania, volunteers unearthed hundreds of gravestones, many of which were undocumented, and its Ivy League university came under controversy last year for displaying the skulls of Black Philadelphians in a classroom.
In one D.C. neighborhood, residents have stumbled onto bones and tombstones. In Atlanta, some are fighting to protect a cemetery behind a condo in Buckhead, where 300 Black people were buried. It’s a pattern that’s also playing out in Houston, Texas, and throughout Virginia.
The Black Cemetery Network is documenting records of the forgotten histories. According to their archive, Florida has the most sites.
In a lot of ways, Tampa Bay is a complex microcosm of the nationwide battle to preserve this land. The sheer number of sites situated in close vicinity, as well as the diversity in where their fights currently stand — from restored and protected to sacred land now dissolved into negotiations and dollar amounts — is all underneath the backdrop of a Republican-led movement away from Black history.
The state’s governor has called African American studies “woke indoctrination” that “significantly lacks educational value.” Still, the Legislature found common ground on the abandoned cemeteries bill, an accomplishment that makes the state stand out among the others. And the University of South Florida sprung into action, dedicating research specifically to the erasure of such sites.
The combination makes it an intriguing examination of how Black history meets modern politics, and how those stories are revered — or rolled over.
The disrespect comes with an unshakeable reminder that this country views Black lives as disposable, says Mis Wright, a 41-year-old spoken word poet. She was sitting right outside a coffee shop in downtown Tampa as her thoughts shot around as if they’re locked inside a pinball machine.
DING! Her face lit up and the words launched out. Everything connects, just unpredictably.
Her mind pinged to Trayvon Martin, unjustly shot and killed in 2012. That bullet was so sharp it shattered her heart just enough to feel like she was mourning her own nephew who had just graduated high school. The year he died was the same year she began digging into her family’s story. Two years later, Michael Brown’s death struck similarly.
She thought of how their faces — and the accounts of the abuse they suffered — sprayed across television screens nationwide. Just like Martin Luther King Jr., she said. Malcolm X, too.
She wondered how Black Americans can walk around with their heads held high and fight these atrocities without power. And how, she asked, can we have power without knowledge of our history?
She says she’s damn-near a family archaeologist at this point. She got the family name, Wright, tattooed across her right hand just before she found out it really should have been “Smith.” The baby Buddha tattoo on her opposite arm was lightly edited to add nappy hair texture. She got that one right after her mother’s death.
She’s tracing her line back as far as she can go. For a while, Wright was stuck until she realized one of her relatives changed her name each time she found herself on new sharecropping land.
She has family from her mother’s side buried at the historically Black Lincoln Cemetery in St. Petersburg, and more from her father’s side further north. The bones in the cemetery are the foundation for who she is, she said. The ancestors help her understand that she’s not alone.
“If I don’t know where I come from, I don’t know who I am.”
Within the cemeteries lies a blueprint for navigating the world, she says.
“If we keep digging, we’ll find pride again.”
A return home
Years after Dara Mathis left Tampa Bay for the north, the possibility that a good chunk of her childhood might have been spent on top of a lost Black cemetery was revealed. In 2019, the authorities at MacDill Air Force Base, where her stepfather had received orders, were alerted about graves on its property.
She wrote about it in her essay, Water Will Carry You Home.
She describes herself as a Tampa native, as much as a military brat can. A lot of her freelance writing has brought her to places that no longer exist. She writes about the gaps, and how we memorialize — or build over — them.
Like newspapers, she thinks of cemeteries as an archive. Their destruction is another form of erasure, and with that comes yet another form of pain for Black Americans, she said.
“Our bodies are seen as laying in the way of progress and development so often,” Mathis says. “This country rolls right over Black communities and literal Black bodies.”
A daughter of military parents and a granddaughter of the Great Migration, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where she can go to honor her own bloodline, so the stories of past generations within the communities that she’s found herself in hold a different type of power, she said. They carry forward the history.
Roughly 20 miles northwest from the base where Mathis grew up, Hayes was wiping tiny balls of sweat off her nose with the handkerchief in her hand. It was officially autumn, but the Florida sun was showing no mercy outside of the cemetery’s shade.
She often thinks of how wild it is that everything came together. How she landed in town to care for some sick relatives in 2015. How, after her brother passed away, she ended up presenting what she knew about her family at one of Clearwater’s Black History Month functions. How that event brought her to Louis Claudio, a historian who had spent decades tirelessly researching the cemetery where her grandparents were buried. How her grandfather’s name was the last on the deed.
And how, it has been about seven years since she helped clear out the thick, waist-high weeds that kept her sitting in her brother’s car the first time he brought her to the graveyard when it was overlooked. How she had always planned to return to Boston after she finished caring for her sick family members. But saving the cemetery kept her there.
Just like serendipity.
“Of all the things I’ve done in life,” she says, “that’s going to be my greatest accomplishment.”
By noon that Friday, Hayes had already laid separate bouquets of flowers on her two family members’ graves, placed American flags near some of the buried veterans’ markers, and stopped at baby Samuel’s headstone.
In memory of our darling Samuel B
Infant son of Henry II and Annie E Swann
Born Nov 20 1895
Died April 17 1896
Here, is the sacred place where reverence for her ancestors pours out.