GULFPORT — Heads bowed, the African-American leaders held hands around the conference table Thursday.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, prayed fervently that their reinvigorated efforts to save Lincoln Cemetery, an historic African-American burial ground, would be "duplicated and replicated throughout the community . . . so that our loved ones who are buried there and loved ones yet to be buried there may know that we care."
But it will take many more prayers — and perhaps even legal action — before the cemetery's tangled present and uncertain future are finally resolved.
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Those at the hastily called meeting at the Pinellas County Urban League were still reeling from the news that someone had snapped up the burial ground where blacks had been forced to bury their dead during segregation.
The new owner was Vanessa Gray, 23, who had spent the past 14 months volunteering her time, helping to clean up the neglected property.
But Gray, who is white, stunned the black community last week when she announced that she had secured the deed to the property on Feb. 8.
By taking control, she may have jeopardized the community's plans to rehabilitate and maintain the historic cemetery using $90,000 that Pinellas County had awarded from its BP oil spill settlement.
But does Gray truly own the cemetery at 600 58th St. S in Gulfport?
Gray says she does. But at last week's meeting, local leaders said they need to explore their legal options.
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In late 2009, Sarlie McKinnon III, a former marketing and advertising executive, whose father and grandparents are buried at Lincoln, was handed the cemetery by the late Susan Alford. It had been in her family for decades. Alford and her son, Richard — owners of nearby Sumner Granite and Bronze Inc., which made tombstones — told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 that the sold-out cemetery cost thousands of dollars to maintain.
McKinnon, who now has a Georgia address, pledged to maintain the historic burial ground. He created a nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp., and collected $109,000 in perpetual care funds that were held in trust for the cemetery. He failed to upkeep the property and dissolved his nonprofit in 2012.
Frustrated by its neglect, others stepped in and organized sporadic clean-ups.
Then more than two years ago, the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg was approached by Urban League president Watson Haynes and other black leaders to help find a permanent solution.
Williams decided that his church's nonprofit, Cross and Anvil Human Services, should take over the cemetery. He applied for a grant from Pinellas County and was awarded $90,000 in BP money. But the award was contingent on Williams showing that his group had clear title to the property.
Gray beat him to it.
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Attorney Peter Rudy Wallace, who represents Richard Alford, said his office and Alford began receiving inquiries from Gray last year. He said Gray's lawyer, Chris Furlong, showed him a document "indicating that ownership of the property was unclear."
Alford was surprised, Wallace said. While the Alford family no longer believed that it owned the property, Wallace said Richard Alford offered to sign any document necessary to resolve the supposed ownership. Alford signed a quit-claim deed on Feb. 8 on behalf of his family's defunct company, Sumner Granite and Bronze Inc., ostensibly handing ownership over to Gray.
"A quit-claim deed says, 'I'm not representing that I own anything, but anything I do own, I'm relinquishing to you,' " Wallace said.
Wallace, a former speaker of the Florida House, said the Alfords did everything they needed to transfer the property to McKinnon in 2009. However, the lawyer said it appeared that McKinnon failed to follow through and officially claim the cemetery.
"From a title insurance perspective, Mr. McKinnon's inaction resulted in a cloud being put on the title," Wallace said. "The Alfords would never assert ownership of Lincoln Cemetery, because they had parted with it entirely, as far as they were aware."
What happens now?
"I think it is, in large part, at this point up to Mr. McKinnon," Wallace said. "If he were to assert ownership, he may well prevail."
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The Greater Mount Zion AME congregation and others with loved ones buried at Lincoln found out about Gray's acquisition on Feb. 27. Williams had called a meeting that evening to talk about the church's plans for the cemetery. Gray shared her news with the pastor just hours beforehand.
Gray said Friday she is not concerned about legal questions.
"It was all in public record and from our end and our research, our counsel and according to the state of Florida, everything was traced right back to Richard Alford," she said.
Furlong, her attorney, said he was not available to comment last week.
Williams declined to say what his next step will be. But he placed some blame on Alford.
"I understand that it was not his fault, but he asserted ownership last week," Williams said Friday. "How can he own it for one week and not for the whole time?"
The pastor also reasoned that Alford should also be responsible for the nearly $32,000 in Gulfport liens that were levied while it was supposedly owned by McKinnon.
If the change of ownership is valid, the liens will have to be paid by Gray's nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Society, which she incorporated in June.
On Feb. 28, Gray, the president of the nonprofit, and her mother, Sharon Butler, 50 (who has since stepped down as vice president), met with Gulfport City Manager Jim O'Reilly to discuss the ownership change. Gray brought along former mayor and family friend Mike Yakes.
O'Reilly told Gray the city will no longer perform basic maintenance on the property, as it has had to for years.
"Now that you own it, we won't go on the property," he said.
Gray must also now pay almost $32,000 in liens, a sum the church had hoped the Gulfport City Council might erase. She has launched a GoFundMe account to pay what is owed.
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Williams once said he would work with Gray to save the cemetery. Now he wonders if she has any sustainable plans for the burial ground. It is unknown whether she can receive the $90,000 in BP money that was awarded to the church.
It was more than a year ago that Gray, a restaurant server, began working almost singlehandedly to clean up the trash-strewn property. She said she is determined to continue.
"When I walked in there, I was 22," she said. "I saw the beds, the couches, the box springs and the fire pits. I knew I could do something."
As months of hard work went by, she began to feel a sense of ownership.
Gray has no familial connection to the cemetery, however. But to her, the race of those buried there is not an issue.
"I don't see color and I never have," she told the Times in April. "To me, it's a respect issue."
But some in the African-American community feel betrayed.
"We were under the impression that she wasn't seeking anything in return and we applauded her for that," said Chico Cromartie, 45, who worked alongside Gray as a volunteer and whose great-grandmother, grandmother and an uncle are buried at Lincoln.
"She never reached out to the African-American community and she didn't notify members in an official way," Cromartie said of Gray's ownership of the cemetery. "She kind of did it in a back door, sneaky kind of way. I feel that it was disingenuous."
Gray said that was never her intention.
"I didn't mean to blindside anyone," she said. "I still want to work with everybody."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.