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DAR cleans, puts flags at cemetery where 6,000 African-Americans are buried

GULFPORT — Cindy Weatherby crouched, leaned over the gray granite headstone and shook her head.

"Now see, this is what really bothers me," Weatherby said as she brushed away dirt and brown grass to reveal the full name of the man buried there: Pvt. James Walker. U.S. Army. World War II, died April 26, 1959 at the age of 31.

"Think about this man going to war and fighting for a country where he wasn't equal," said Weatherby, regent for the Princess Hirrhigua Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "It's a terrible testament to our country's history."

Walker is one of about 6,000 African-Americans buried in historic Lincoln Cemetery, a 9-acre tract of land on 58th Street between the Pinellas Trail and the ball fields at Boca Ciega High School. Dating to 1926, the privately owned cemetery is the final resting place for generations of African-Americans — many of them veterans — and for decades has suffered from neglect.

In the last few years, volunteers have taken the problem into their own gloved hands, pulling weeds, hauling out tree limbs and collecting trash to bring back some dignity to the place.

On Saturday, it was DAR's turn. Weatherby, a professional genealogist, had joined previous cleanup efforts and decided her group would sponsor one for Memorial Day. A few dozen volunteers came with trash bags and more than 400 U.S. flags to plant near the graves of veterans.

"There's no sense in complaining about your country if you don't put your hands in to do the dirty work to make a difference," said Austin Graham, a 28-year-old St. Petersburg resident who joined the chapter last month, making her a fourth generation DAR member. "Even if it's something as little as picking up garbage in a cemetery."

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Just as the nation has evolved since the concept of a separate cemetery for minorities, so have the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In 1939, the group barred Marian Anderson, a world-famous black contralto, from performing in its Constitution Hall in Washington. The incident prompted Eleanor Roosevelt, then the first lady, to renounce her membership, and DAR was scorned as racist for decades.

Weatherby acknowledges that stain can't be wiped away, but she insists it no longer defines the group. Good deeds and diversity do.

"All we can do," she said, "is move forward and do the right thing."

Anyone can join if they prove lineal descent from someone who fought or aided the Revolutionary War effort. Several of the Princess Hirrhigua Chapter's 56 members are black, Weatherby said.

DAR's history wasn't on the mind of Jill Buggs when she showed up Saturday. The 63-year-old St. Petersburg resident heard about the cleanup and decided to help while visiting her mother, Mary Lou, who was buried in Lincoln after she died in 1993 at the age of 69.

Buggs' sister and brother are there, too, but she doesn't know where. Many grave markers are completely covered by grass.

"I think it's time that somebody takes control and takes charge of the records so families can find their loved ones," Buggs said.

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That might happen soon, said St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton.

Newton's mother, Susie Mae, is buried in Lincoln, so the cemetery has become a personal mission. He said the cemetery's owner, Sarlie McKinnon III, has verbally agreed to hand over the property to a nonprofit organization run by Pastor Clarence Williams of St. Petersburg. Newton said Williams recently presided over a funeral and was dismayed by its condition.

McKinnon III, whose family is buried at the cemetery, agreed in 2009 to take over its maintenance from the late Susan Alford and her son, Richard. The Alfords transferred the burial ground that had been in their family for decades, its maps, records and $109,000 from a "perpetual-care fund" to McKinnon. After initial work, he soon ran out of money.

Once McKinnon hands over the records and ownership, a nonprofit can work to locate graves, undertake a full-scale rehabilitation of the property and do regular maintenance, Newton said.

"We have an army of volunteers ready to go," he said.

By 11 a.m., sweat-drenched volunteers took refuge in the shade of a giant oak and relished a light breeze that made the American flags flutter.

DAR member June Bedford sensed something under her white Rockport sneakers. Bedford, 70, of St. Petersburg used a rake to claw away grass and dirt from a flat, rectangular marker. The stone featured hand-laid bits of colorful tile that spelled out a name: Charlie Jackson.

It was hard to make out the years of Jackson's birth and death, but his final resting place was a secret no more.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

DAR cleans, puts flags at cemetery where 6,000 African-Americans are buried 05/24/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 24, 2014 10:03pm]

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