Those four little words caused the small crowd gathered Saturday morning at Greater Mt. Zion AME to go wild.
The church’s pastor, Rev. Clarence Williams, has decided to launch a legal battle over ownership of the historic Lincoln Cemetery, located at 600 58th St. S, in Gulfport.
“We feel like we have an obligation,” said Williams. “This is going to be a long process but they spoke to me last night, those people…”
Williams had intended to announce the church’s plans for restoring the cemetery when he learned late last month that 23-year-old Vanessa Gray had obtained a quitclaim deed. Now both sides are lawyered up and ready to fight.
In 2009, Lincoln, Inc. transferred ownership of the cemetery to Sarlie McKinnon III who established Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park, Corp. In 2012 he dissolved the nonprofit, but not before receiving $109,000 in perpetual care funds.
McKinnon III turned over the cemetery maps to the church, and Williams and his team got busy preparing to restore the nine-area plot of land. A $90,000 grant from Pinellas County was obtained to help with restoration plans.
Although McKinnon received the property free of any encumbrances, he did not officially claim the cemetery. Gray tracked down the family that transferred the property to McKinnon and was able to obtain the quitclaim on Feb. 8.
Now ownership is up in the air; although Tamara Felton-Howard, one of the lawyers for the church, said only McKinnon and his company have the authority to convey the cemetery, and that he “has signed a document.”
Williams is now asking the community to generate some energy.
“I didn’t feel raising the money would be as difficult a task as engaging our community. I don’t want people to write a check and walk away,” he said.
Williams is asking all area churches to begin compiling a list of their members who have loved ones buried there in efforts to start a database.
The church also plans to establish an account and raise money to take care of any legal battles headed their way.
“We do not believe that this particular property should be in private hands. No family, no private person should have the latitude to be able to dispose of this property as they see fit,” said Williams, who also stated that the plan the church will come up with will be structured to facilitate community ownership.
For almost a year and a half, Gray, who is white, volunteered her time cleaning up the cemetery that had fallen into disarray after the current owner abandoned it.
“This is not just about tending the graves, this is about telling the story of the people that are buried there. Anybody can tend the graves but they can’t tell the story,” said Williams, who feels a historically black cemetery should have a connection with a historically black organization.
Gray told the Tampa Bay Times that the nonprofit she established last June is not owned by one person, but that it is a society. And with a quitclaim deed in her hands, she feels her organization is the current owner of the cemetery and will continue scheduled cleanups.
“With all that we’ve done, there’s a possibility that all we have really accomplished is to get before a judge,” said Williams. “When you get before a judge with legal action, anything can happen.”
At this point, there is no clear path as to where the $90,000 grant will go, but the City of Gulfport is ready to unload $32,000 worth of liens the property has obtained for general maintenance on its 6,000 acres.
“We are asking you to be in prayer for our group as we press forward to making our plans for the cemetery a reality,” said Williams.