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Restoring old black cemetery an effort to preserve history

PALM COAST — The aging reverend was barely a man when Lewis E. Wadsworth III saw the body, floating above-ground in a rickety saw box.

"He was stunned when he saw that box," said the Rev. Frank Giddens, a slightly stooped yet commanding old-timer and longtime leader of the faithful at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Bunnell.

So stunned was the St. Joseph Turpentine Still owner by poor conditions at the black burial ground that Wadsworth immediately pledged a 5-acre site off Kings Road to the Espanola Masonic Lodge, where Giddens, now 77, would later be the worshipful master.

It was there that Flagler County's black community would bury its dead — somewhere not so prone to flooding, disinterments and disruptive developers.

The cemetery, established March 26, 1948, and tucked on Old Kings Road's eastern side, is now a mass of knotted brush and moody cacti, tangled amid fading flowers, folk graves and startlingly new gravestones. A few older graves are all but open to the elements.

It's easy to pass by the entrance, just a mile north of State Road 100, without knowing more than 500 people have found final rest nearby.

But city officials and the cemetery's caretakers hope a recent plan to spruce things up and declare it a historic site will help repair old racial conflicts and honor the dead.

It's been a delicate dance, though, between the city and a community worried about losing control of the only cemetery it had for a long time.

Before the civil rights movement and integration, it was all they had.

"In those days, the only place you could bury us was in that cemetery," Giddens said in his signature gravelly voice. "Nowadays you can bury where you want to be buried at — as long as you can afford it."

Some officials fear that letting the cemetery fall to ruin would threaten its future and preservation of the city's past.

"There's a rich, rich history that we're losing here," said Oel Wingo, assistant city manager, at a June meeting with the Masons.

The cemetery piqued Mayor Jon Netts' interest years ago and he vowed as a City Council member to get the restoration rolling.

"This was a cemetery forced into existence by unfortunate social circumstances in years past," Netts said. "Other African-American cemeteries were essentially demolished by the onslaught of construction and development and I just felt it was imperative that this not happen again in Flagler County."

State and federal historic preservation laws now protect unmarked graves and formal cemeteries.

Improvements coming

During a March survey of the area, prompted by the Old Kings Road widening slated for later this year, archaeologist Dana Ste. Claire identified one of the last unpaved sections of Kings Highway running through the cemetery.

The Revolutionary War period connector once stretched from Georgia to New Smyrna Beach and served as a major route for British colonists and the military to St. Augustine in the 1770s.

The cemetery's past and the Kings Highway portion could make the site historically significant enough to land on the National Register of Historic Places, said Ste. Claire, also a historical consultant.

"Everyone seems to think this area started with (Palm Coast developer) ITT and it didn't," Netts said. "It's important that our residents can keep in touch with the past."

As part of the improvements, the cemetery's obscure entrance will be moved to the property's south end. Parking and coquina pillars with a gate and arch will be added.

There'll be a walkway to the grave sites, landscaping between a 4-foot picket fence and the historic Kings Highway segment, and a kiosk with historic information on the site and area.

Palm Coast's City Council is considering an agreement with the Masonic Lodge to pursue historic grants and also to help maintain the site.

"I think it's long overdue," said Bill Butler, the city landscape architect who designed the upgrades. "These people deserve more dignity than what they've been given."

In 2003, the Rev. Giddens buried Essie Mae, his wife of 54 years, at the Masonic Cemetery. He buried his son that year, too. No man, he intimated in pain-tinged tones, should outlive his children.

Used to be he'd drop by the cemetery twice a month to visit his parents' graves and say a quiet hello to relatives long gone. He doesn't make it out there much these days.

"When a wound's trying to heal, you've got to let it heal, you know?" he said quietly.

Like Giddens, many of the area's black families are indelibly linked to the sacred space by generations of kin under its dry soil. It doesn't matter how far they roam.

"They always bring them home and they're buried here," Giddens said.

Restoring old black cemetery an effort to preserve history 08/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 3:13pm]
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