BY HELEN J. SIMON
Reprinted by permission, The Gabber Newspaper
GULFPORT — After years of neglect, Gulfport’s Lincoln Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of local African Americans, is on the radar of several different entities and may finally get the help needed to preserve its legacy for future generations.
Among those stepping forward are the recently reorganized St. Petersburg NAACP, the City of Gulfport, the Gulfport Historical Society and a young woman who since December has been toiling with a shovel and broom, cleaning up and marking hundreds of anonymous gravesites long ago covered with grass.
At stake are the graves of some 6,000 African Americans buried there during the days of racial segregation, including Civil War veterans and members of the most prominent families in St. Petersburg’s African-American community.
Last month Pastor Basha Jordan Jr. of St. Petersburg was sitting alone on his family’s headstone in Lincoln Cemetery, praying with his New Testament, as he often does. Among those buried there are Jordan’s grandfather, Elder Jordan Sr., his wife Mary Frances and their six-year-old daughter Anita. Elder Jordan Sr. was a former slave turned prominent businessman who donated 26 acres to the City of St. Petersburg on which the Jordan Park housing complex was built.
About 10 years ago Jordan said, there was “nothing” at the grave of his grandfather’s family. So Jordan and other relatives pooled their resources to install a beautiful monument engraved with their names and the names of others, including himself, who might yet be buried in the large plot, he said.
“I get energized when I come here through my grandfather’s spirit,” Jordan said.
The cemetery, which lies near the St. Petersburg/Gulfport line and faces 58th Street South at the intersection with Sixth Avenue just south of the Royal Palm Cemetery and the Pinellas Trail, fell through the cracks of legal jurisdiction after owner Sarlie McKinnon of Atlanta became unable to care for it and it fell further into disrepair.
The City of Gulfport, frustrated by McKinnon’s lack of responsiveness, has been mowing the cemetery as required by state law. Last May two St. Petersburg residents, Scott Hollman and Bill Sullivan, took it upon themselves to rebuild the collapsed entrance sign and plant flowers.
Despite these efforts, the cemetery today includes large swaths of grass with nary a stone to mark the graves; broken and fallen headstones; open burial vaults; containers of stagnant water and downed tree limbs and trash. The back of the cemetery lacks any fence and extends right up to the Pinellas Trail; oblivious bicyclists and pedestrians transit just a few feet away.
The NAACP recently began exploring helping the cemetery at the request of a local resident with a relative buried there, said St. Petersburg attorney Brian Battaglia, chairperson of the NAACP’s legal committee.
“This isn’t an official project yet for the NAACP,” he said. “It’s more in the investigative stage right now.”
Battaglia has met twice with Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly and Vice Mayor Yolanda Roman in hopes of laying the groundwork for raising public awareness of the cemetery’s historical significance and possibly adjusting municipal ordinance to let the city maintain the cemetery as an important historic site, he said. A third meeting, with the city attorney, is in the works.
“Hopefully something can be done to put the cemetery back in the condition that the people who rest there deserve,” he said.
Battaglia said he also had spoken to cemetery owner McKinnon.
“He indicated that he was willing to try to cooperate and do what’s best for all involved,” Battaglia said.
Jordan said the condition of Lincoln Cemetery reflected the “social, economic and political system” that treats African Americans differently from members of the white community.
“For too long we’ve been depending on others to do what we should do for ourselves,” he said. “So the NAACP is on this to get something done.”
Christine Brown, chair of the Gulfport Historical Society (GHS) and Ward 2 city council member, said the new members of the GHS board of directors are avid historians committed to helping the cemetery.
Although it’s still in the planning stages, the GHS is considering creating a non-profit foundation that would fundraise, buy and care for the Lincoln Cemetery, said Brown, who as a member of the city council has to remove herself from city discussions of the matter.
“We feel we need at least $1 million so we can have the city foreclose on the cemetery so that we can take ownership of it from the city,” she said.
The GHS would use the cemetery to educate children and the general public about “the great things that the people who are buried there have done for the generations that came after them,” she said. “We’d love to do it as the caretakers of the history of Gulfport, but in the end the only thing that really matters is that the souls are respected.”
While the various entities talk and plan, Vanessa Gray of Gulfport, 22, said she adopted the Lincoln Cemetery as a personal cause in December after driving by there every day on her way to work and seeing it in such disrepair.
“I just decided to do something about it,” she said. “So far I’ve uncovered, fixed and restored over 200 graves.”
Gray has also placed more than 400 orange flags to mark overgrown graves that otherwise no one would know are there and recently starting making headstones for some. “Everywhere you step there’s a grave … you step on somebody,” she said.
Her main goal is to get help for this place, and not just with donations of money. She has created a Facebook group, Lincoln Cemetery Society, which is organizing a group cleanup for this Saturday, May 7 from 5 p.m. until dark. For more information, email Nessagray9973@gmail.com.
“This is backbreaking work,” Gray said. “It’s a lot of digging. It’s a lot of moving dirt.”