Lincoln Cemetery cleanup – A MLK Day of Service project

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — For their MLK Day of Service project, the African American Heritage Association (AAHA) of St. Pete, through a partnership with the Pinellas County Urban League (PCUL) and Professional Opportunities Program for Students, Inc., will be working alongside students and volunteers to clean up historic Lincoln Cemetery.

The cemetery at 600 58th St. S. in Gulfport is the final resting place for thousands of African Americans, some of who even served in the Civil War. Established in 1926, it was one of the few places African Americans could bury their loved ones during the time of segregation, but it has suffered over the years from neglect and lack of regular maintenance. That’s something Gwendolyn Reese, president of the AAHA, would like to change.

“I was approached by the Urban League in an effort to clean up the cemetery and find someone who will do that on a regular basis,” Reese said. She added that it is “a cemetery with a number of significant African Americans buried there, many of them very, very prevalent during the civil rights era in St. Petersburg.”

2015 Day of Service bw

Reese noted that there have been some officials and organizations that have made efforts to clean up the cemetery in the past, such as Councilman Wengay Newton and the Daughters of the American Revolution, but nothing permanent has been put in place. She added that Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the PCUL, lately has been leading the effort for perpetual maintenance of the cemetery.

“It’s overgrown and it just deserves to be maintained out of respect to those who are there and the family members of those who have been laid to rest there,” Reese explained. “So we’re going to do an overall cleanup of picking up trash, trimming hedges. We have a landscaping company that is working with us and I have about 35 high school students who will be working with us also.”

The project will run from 10 – 4 p.m. on Mon., Jan. 19, and Reese said she would like to get about 100 volunteers to pitch in. Many high school students, young professionals and members of the AAHA have already committed to helping out with the cleanup. The project will also be an opportunity for students to get a very valuable history lesson, according to Reese.

“Part of it is the cleanup, the other part of it is to document those who are buried there,” she stated. “A lot of the students will be taking photographs and there is also a process which we’re using with paper and charcoal to get an imprint of the headstones as a way of documenting who’s buried there and getting the information off the headstones while it’s still legible. Some of it’s not legible, and many of the graves do not have headstones.”

The students will also be taking pictures of the condition of the cemetery to present to Haynes and the PCUL to assist with the overall view of what needs to take place.

“We will be looking at some of the problem areas and taking pictures so we can put out to the community or to an organization what is needed there to revive or restore the cemetery to the condition that it once was and what it very much deserves to be,” she said.

Reese summed the project up as a combination of “cleaning up, collecting historical data and educating” since afterwards they plan to look up and do research on some of the key people that are buried there. Though the duration of the project is six hours, Reese will be happy with any amount of time volunteers are willing to give.

“We don’t really expect someone to come and stay from 10 – 4 p.m.,” she said, “but if we have a number of people coming and just putting in a couple of hours, maybe going on to another project or going on to the parade, still, many hands will make light of the work that needs to be done.”

Though Reese looks forward to the one-day cleanup project, she’s aware that Lincoln Cemetery is in dire need of regular upkeep.

“This is not something we need to do periodically,” she stated firmly. “We need to maintain this cemetery on a regular basis—it deserves that. That is our goal, and our project will jump start that and hopefully we’ll be able to work with an organization and step forward to assist them. We’re hoping the community in general will take part in assisting the organization in maintaining the cemetery.”

This is the third year that the AAHA has participated in a Day of Service project, and the admiration that Reese, 65, has for Dr. King is apparent.

“I grew up almost with Dr. King,” she attested. “I was there literally in front of the television watching the marches in Birmingham, participating in the little bit of the Civil Rights Movement we had here in St. Pete. Dr. King exemplified the fact that we could accomplish what is needed to be accomplished not through violence or hatred but through love and peace. And so when we look at the world today, with all the hatred, all the killing, all of the violence, it makes me even more appreciative of Dr. King’s philosophy of love, nonviolence and peace.”

For information on volunteering, contact Gwendolyn Reese at 727.418.2881 or gwenreese@tampabay.rr.com.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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