The legacy of loved ones: missing graves and broken headstones

NNB Student Reporter

[Matthew Liddell | NNB The cemetery was established when graveyards were strictly segregated.]

Matthew Liddell | NNB
The cemetery was established when graveyards were strictly segregated.

GULFPORT – It was Mother’s Day 2010, and families and friends gathered to visit the graves of their loved ones. Some of them were stunned at what they found:

Lincoln Cemetery was in shambles.

Six-foot-tall grass and weeds. Broken headstones. Graves that could not be found. The historic African-American graveyard, established in 1926, was once again a victim of shameful neglect.

How could someone let this happen?

That is what St. Petersburg City Council Member Wengay Newton intended to find out. Newton heard about the cemetery’s condition from Bay News 9, which reported the Mother’s Day debacle. Residents contacted him in hopes that he would take an interest in the issue, since he was the only African-American council member.

“People think it’s a political thing, but it’s not,” Newton said. “For me, it’s personal.”

Newton’s mother was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in 1985. To hear that the cemetery had gone downhill again was disappointing. He wanted answers just as much as everyone else.

The cemetery, 9 acres at 600 58th St. S, was established during the Jim Crow era, when graveyards were strictly segregated. Over the years, 6,000 people were laid to rest there – military veterans, civil rights leaders, prominent people and ordinary folks.

The cemetery has changed hands several times, and charges of shoddy maintenance go back for at least half a century, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

In 2009, ownership passed to Sarlie McKinnon III, whose father and grandparents are buried there. He also received more than $100,000 in state-mandated “perpetual care” funds for maintaining the cemetery.

Most of that money was spent, according to Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly. “And once perpetual care funds were gone, we had to take action.”

The city of Gulfport is now mowing the cemetery twice a month, but there is still more to be done.

A number of people have found a reason to get involved. Many have joined because Emma Booker, the namesake of Booker High School in Sarasota, is buried there. The Daughters of the American Revolution has helped maintenance efforts because more than half of the 6,000 graves hold veterans.

But it’s not as simple as getting some volunteers together to fix everything. If everyone cleans up, Newton said, then they’re doing McKinnon’s job for him. If they let it go and don’t touch the cemetery, then they are neglecting the legacy of their loved ones.

In the cemetery today, it’s plain to see that little has changed since 2010. Palm trees and bushes have grown in front of some headstones, obscuring the names and epitaphs. Large tree branches have fallen and crushed other headstones. Ground-level graves are covered in weeds, leaving barely any sign that someone rests there.

The conditions seem even more shameful when looking just to the north, where Royal Palm Cemetery appears immaculate and pristine compared to Lincoln Cemetery.

“It’s a mess, it’s a mess,” Newton said. “It’s in better shape than it was, but not where it needs to be. It’s an ongoing journey.”

Newton said that McKinnon is no longer selling plots in the graveyard. The only people being buried there now are those who bought plots years ago.

People who want to buy plots now “call often, and it goes as far back as 2011,” Newton said as he pulled out an inch-thick pad of papers. “I just keep them, hang on to them, and let people know that we’re working on it.”

Unfortunately, all they can do is wait until McKinnon makes major changes or gives up the cemetery. This seems even more difficult since McKinnon now lives in Georgia.

The veterans “deserve a better resting place than this,” Newton said. “We just need to get it in local hands to make things better.”

There may be hope for Lincoln Cemetery, and it might happen soon. Rev. Clarence Williams of the Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church recently conducted a funeral at the cemetery, and he was appalled by what he saw, Newton said. Williams decided to take action and contacted McKinnon.

McKinnon agreed to transfer the cemetery to a nonprofit organization run by Williams, Newton said. It seemed that change would be coming.

“I attended a meeting (about the transfer) with Newton,” O’Reilly said, “and then what happened was I haven’t heard anything since.”

Williams and McKinnon could not be reached for comment.

Newton said he is hopeful that the transfer will happen by late summer, but there is still the fear that things may fall through.

“This is an issue we’ve tried not to consider at the moment,” O’Reilly said. “We are hoping that the agreement would work out between them, because at this point, to keep doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to let it get any worse than it is now.”

For now, Lincoln Cemetery is stuck in limbo, with an owner who is neglecting it and a community that hates to see it languish any longer.

Information from the Tampa Bay Times was used in this report.  

Who’s buried in Lincoln Cemetery?

An estimated 3,000 military veterans
Elder Jordan, a prominent developer in the area around 22nd Street S.
Fannye Ayer Ponder, a stalwart in education and civic activism
Robert Swain, a dentist, businessman and civil rights activist
C. Bette Wimbish, a civil rights activist and first black elected to the St. Petersburg City Council
Ralph Wimbish, a physician and onetime president of the NAACP
Source: Tampa Bay Times