GULFPORT — An African-American church whose efforts to take over a neglected cemetery have been thwarted by a 23-year-old woman now appears set to launch a legal battle to claim the historic property.
"We do not believe that this particular piece of property should be in private hands. … We are striving for community ownership," the Rev. Clarence Williams, pastor of Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, told a small crowd gathered at the church Saturday.
"We are going to be establishing an account where we can raise money to take care of this legal battle," Williams said.
Saturday's meeting followed another in late February at which Williams was prepared to announce his church's plans for the Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport, where generations of black families have been buried since 1926.
That day, however, Williams learned that Gulfport resident Vanessa Gray had obtained a quit-claim deed to the 9-acre property. Gray, who is white, has become known for her volunteer work cleaning up the cemetery and organizing others to assist. She lives nearby and has said she felt a need to help the cemetery.
"This is not just about tending the graves," Williams said. "This is about telling the story of the people that are buried there. Anybody can tend the graves, but they can't tell the story. That's our story. We have to tell that story and I believe that is the reason why we felt like a historically black cemetery should have a connection with a historically black organization."
There was applause.
"I honestly thought that we can come together for the better of Lincoln Cemetery," said Gray, who established the nonprofit Lincoln Cemetery Society Inc. "This is not one person owning it. It has a society, everyday people working every day, going out to do what needs to be done. As of right now, according to the state of Florida, we are the owners and we are just going to keep working and do what we need to do to properly restore Lincoln Cemetery."
Williams said taking responsibility for the cemetery at 600 58th St. S was not something he pursued, but agreed to do at the urging of local African-American leaders. For more than two years, the church has pursued "a long, tedious process trying to understand the very complex nature" of the property's ownership, he said.
Owner Sarlie McKinnon III, who has a Georgia address, turned over the cemetery maps. And the church got a $90,000 grant from Pinellas County to pursue plans to restore the property and provide upkeep. But the funds are contingent on showing clear title to the cemetery.
That was jeopardized on Feb. 8, when Gray gained ownership through a quit-claim deed signed by Richard Alford, whose family once owned the cemetery. McKinnon, though, got the sold-out cemetery in 2009 from the corporation owned by Alford's mother, the late Susan Alford. McKinnon also received $109,000 in perpetual care funds held in trust for the cemetery. McKinnon created a nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp., which he dissolved in 2012.
Lawyer Peter Rudy Wallace, who represents Richard Alford, said when Gray began inquiring about the cemetery last year, Alford was surprised. As far as he knew, the property and the corporation associated with it, Lincoln Cemetery Inc., was owned by McKinnon, Wallace said. He added that Alford offered to sign any document necessary to resolve the ownership.
Wallace, a former speaker of the Florida House, said that while the Alfords had done everything they needed to transfer the property to him, McKinnon had failed to follow through to officially claim Lincoln Cemetery.
It created a murky legal situation, Wallace said.
"The quit-claim deed was requested to assist in clearing the title, but it doesn't necessarily resolve the question of what would happen if Mr. McKinnon returned and asserted his ownership of the corporation, Lincoln Cemetery Inc.," he said.
McKinnon appeared to do just that sometime Friday, when he signed what Tamara Felton-Howard, a lawyer for the church, said was "a document" on behalf of the congregation. She would not confirm that it was quit-claim deed. Only McKinnon, she said, "has the authority to transfer this property."
Whoever ends up with the cemetery will inherit almost $32,000 in code enforcement liens levied by the city of Gulfport, which has been doing basic maintenance at the cemetery, where several hundred people still need to be buried in plots that have been sold out since 1996.
Gray, a restaurant server, said she is counting on the $90,000 that Pinellas awarded to Greater Mount Zion to continue her work.
The Pinellas County Commission has yet to discuss how to proceed if Gray prevails, Commissioner Ken Welch said.
"But I believe that if we cannot move forward with Mount Zion AME — who applied for the funds and followed our requirements for funding — then we should find another worthy historically significant project. There are a few that come to mind, particularly as it relates to the African-American community," he said in a text.
Asked to clarify what this means for Gray, Welch added: "The commission as a body will have to discuss our next steps. However, I have strong concerns related to the new ownership's capacity and their lack of transparency during this process."
On March 2, Gray opened a Go-FundMe account to pay the liens. It had raised $130 by Saturday.
Gray said she's got "a Plan B," to take care of the cemetery if the county money doesn't materialize. "We have been doing this off of community support," she said. "At the end of the day, when you really look at this, this is not a impossible goal."
Church member Eddie Pringle supports his congregation's efforts.
"I think it is a move in the right direction, primarily because we have a vested interest in that cemetery and most of us have relatives and friends there," he said. "We have a connection to that cemetery."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.