BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – What does former slave Elder Jordan, Sr., civil rights leader Dr. Ralph Wimbish and Dr. Robert Swain, the first black dentist to build a clinic in St. Pete, all have in common?
They are all buried at the Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport, 600 58th St. S, and the question now is what will happen to the cemetery if it falls into the wrong hands?
An emergency meeting of community leaders and stakeholders was called last Thursday after news broke that the historic cemetery where African Americans buried their dead during the area’s long courtship with Jim Crow had a new owner.
The new owner is a 23-year-old waitress named Vanessa Gray, who also happens to be white. Gray spent the past 14 months organizing volunteer cleanups and her efforts were commended.
In last week’s meeting, held at the Pinellas County Urban League, President and CEO Watson Haynes revealed he and other community leaders approached Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church about taking over the neglected property and spearheading rehabilitation efforts.
Community activist Gwen Reese
Williams and the church’s nonprofit organization, Cross and Anvil Human Services, accepted the challenge and got busy on plans to clean up the property. They put Rene Flowers in charge of writing a grant that awarded the project $90,000 from the BP oil spill and sought the help of Dr. Antoinette Jackson, Ph.D. from the University of South Florida and her students to start locating lost graves.
Williams said he received a phone call from Gray on Feb. 27 saying she had secured ownership of the cemetery.
“I asked her over a year ago what was her interest,” said Williams. “She said they just wanted to help clean up and maintain.”
It appears Gray has been working on this plan for some time. Unbeknownst to Williams, she had incorporated the nonprofit Lincoln Cemetery Society last June.
So who owned the cemetery in the first place? According to the Tampa Bay Times, the late Susan Alford gave the cemetery to Sarlie McKinnon III in 2009. The cemetery had been in her family for decades.
McKinnon said he would maintain the nine-acre parcel of land, and created a nonprofit called Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp. He then proceeded to collect $109,000 in perpetual care funds, reneged on his promise to keep up the historic burial site and moved to Georgia. His nonprofit was dissolved in 2012.
For years now, different volunteers have tried to help maintain the property where approximately 6,000 African Americans are buried.
Alford’s son Richard does not believe his family has any claim to the property but apparently signed over a quitclaim deed to Gray on Feb. 8.
According to the Times, Attorney Peter Rudy Wallace, who represents Richard Alford, said the family transferred the property to McKinnon completely, however, McKinnon failed to officially claim the cemetery.
Currently, the cemetery does not have a clear title, and now it rests in the hands of McKinnon.
Williams is most concerned about sustainability. He feels that not a person or family should own the cemetery.
“I just wanted to make sure that a structure was in place to facilitate the cemetery’s existence beyond me and every other person with a limited lifespan,” he said, pointing out that historical black cemeteries were anomalies of Jim Crow and should be considered black institutions.
Community activist Gwen Reese, who organized a cleanup in 2015 and whose sister’s grave is lost to time there, echoed Williams’ sentiments.
“We need to seek historic designation,” she asserted, pointing out that you do not have to own a property to do so.
Williams said another possibility should be explored.
“When you’re talking about mapping that cemetery like I wanted to do and gridding it and start doing ground penetrating radar, you’re talking about an investigation,” he said. Supposed there’s something out there that they don’t want us to find? …Could this be a rouse to keep the grass cut enough for you to hush because when I pull out that radar, it may make some people uncomfortable.”
NAACP St. Petersburg Branch President Maria L. Scruggs said: “This is not a black and white issue. This is a legal issue that has to be resolved with ownership.”
Without McKinnon’s signature, no one will have a basis to bring any type of legal action.
“Pastor has done a very thorough job and what impresses me is that he’s been meticulous, forthcoming and inclusive as well as thorough for many months,” said State Senator Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “What upsets me is that it appears that Ms. Gray has been less than that for the same period of time.”