LISTEN LIVE

Resting Place Of Prominent African-Americans Faces Neglect

Oct 16, 2016

Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport is a historic resting place for many prominent African-Americans. For decades, it's also suffered from neglect. Some locals say that's about race. Others believe it's a little more complicated than that. 

Here's a transcript of the story that aired on National Public Radio:

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport, Fla., is a historic resting place for many prominent African-Americans. For decades, it's also suffered from neglect. Some locals say that's about race. Others believe it's a little more complicated than that. For NPR's Code Switch team, Quincy Walters of member station WUSF reports.

QUINCY WALTERS, BYLINE: On a sunny, humid Florida afternoon, I'm walking with Chico Cromartie through Lincoln Cemetery.

So where are we heading now?

CHICO CROMARTIE: We're heading to my grandmother's grave here, and she was buried here in 1996. And I come out here often to visit her grave.

WALTERS: But today, Cromartie doesn't stop there. He walks me deeper into the cemetery grounds. The farther back you go, the more unruly the foliage becomes. Vines and roots cover and creep under headstones. Here Cromartie shows me the grave of a man who was born a slave.

CROMARTIE: This is John Sharter's headstone here. He fought in the Civil War, and he fought in the Spanish American War.

WALTERS: Like Sharter's, many of the graves here are for African-American veterans. The headstones aren't white like they are in Arlington National Cemetery. Most here are weathered gray, green and black. Cromartie says the people buried here deserve to be remembered, especially in this area.

CROMARTIE: Because African-Americans here are a big part of this city.

WALTERS: And that's evident by who's buried here. There are black doctors, civil rights activists, educators. But locals say there was a time when the only black folks welcome in this town after dark were the dead ones. You see, when this cemetery was established in 1926, the city of Gulfport was a sundown town, a place where African-Americans faced harassment or violence if they dared to be here at night. That history may be one reason why Lincoln has been neglected so long, according to Duke professor Karla Holloway. She's the author of "Passed On: African-American Mouning Stories."

KARLA HOLLOWAY: You still have thousands of families who have been denied the opportunity to establish a connection that is a memorial connection, a family ritual of visiting and cleaning and caring for a grave.

WALTERS: And that lack of connection has impacted Lincoln Cemetery across generations. In the late '50s, bodies were disinterred from a nearby black cemetery and haphazardly re-buried here at Lincoln. Grave markers were lost. Years later, a fire destroyed some cemetery records leading to more confusion. A 1968 newspaper article reads Lincoln Cemetery rest in rubbish. Fifty years later, it's still in rough shape.

VANESSA GRAY: I started looking around, and I was like this is unacceptable. This is not the way it should be.

WALTERS: That's Vanessa Gray, a 22-year-old waitress. She started cleaning the cemetery on her own last year, then created the Lincoln Cemetery Society. It's a group of volunteers who get together and clean when they can, but Gray wonders why the city hasn't done more to help.

GRAY: I don't want to say it's a race thing, but I want to say it's a race thing. And I hate to say it like that.

WALTERS: Brian Battaglia a lawyer with the local NAACP says there's more to the story. The current owner Sarlie McKinnon III is black. He bought Lincoln because his parents are buried here. And we reached out to Mckinnon, but he hasn't responded. Battaglia says McKinnon had no experience managing a cemetery, so he doesn't think race is the main factor in the neglect.

BRIAN BATTAGLIA: It had a lot to do with economics and really their ability to raise the funds necessary to maintain the roadways, to maintain some of the drainage and obviously the foliage.

WALTERS: In 2015, the city of Gulfport started helping with basic maintenance. It periodically mows it and takes out weeds. But NAACP's Battaglia says that even though the cemetery has racked up nearly $30,000 in code enforcement liens, the government can't just take it over.

BATTAGLIA: If you look at some of the statutory provisions that address cemeteries, at least here in the state of Florida, there are a lot of gaps.

WALTERS: Battaglia recently pushed through a resolution for the city council declaring the historical significance of Lincoln Cemetery. The local NAACP wants the city to maintain Lincoln, so it isn't dependent on volunteers for upkeep. And that would give Gwendolyn Reese some comfort. She's the president of St. Petersburg's African-American Heritage Association. She organized a cleanup last year and said it cost about $4,500 to clean and haul out debris. Her family joined the effort.

GWENDOLYN REESE: My dad at that time was 86, and my dad was here for eight hours with no break cleaning. And all because his daughter's out here, and he doesn't know where.

WALTERS: That's because her sister who died shortly after birth is buried in the infant section. But there was never a clear marking for that area. That's why Reese says the cemetery needs a historical designation, and it needs a new owner. She just wants people to be able to find the graves of their loved ones like her sister's. For NPR News, I'm Quincy Walters.