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Condition of Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport still drawing complaints

Overgrown grass and weeds hide the grave of U.S. Army veteran Henry Davis at Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport. Relatives of people buried at the African-American cemetery say they can’t find grave sites.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Overgrown grass and weeds hide the grave of U.S. Army veteran Henry Davis at Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport. Relatives of people buried at the African-American cemetery say they can’t find grave sites.

GULFPORT — Sander Myles often looked out at Lincoln Cemetery from her old office at Boca Ciega High School and fumed.

The final resting place for generations of African-Americans, among them Civil War veterans, community leaders and ordinary citizens, was a disgrace.

"There was a father and son and they had pretty nice headstones, maybe 3 feet tall or larger, and the grass actually outgrew them,'' said Myles, family and community liaison at Boca Ciega.

"It is a historic cemetery for African-American people. I feel that it should be taken care of regardless, like any other cemetery we have.''

She isn't the only one who's upset. Relatives have complained about futile searches for family graves in the thicket of undergrowth, of being attacked by ants and of a cemetery operator who's been unresponsive.

Phoebe Jones, who was 13 when her mother died in 1996, said she took photographs on Sept. 28, the anniversary of her mother's death.

"Once we got out of the car, we couldn't even see anything below our knees,'' she said.

Lizzie Brooks said she and her brother have been unable to locate their mother's grave, though they've visited it countless times through the years.

"Someone has to take the responsibility and clean this place up."

Someone did. It has been almost two years since Sarlie McKinnon III, whose father and grandparents are buried at Lincoln, agreed to take over the care of the property.

For more than a year, McKinnon said, Home Depot employees volunteered at the cemetery while his Masonic lodge provided lunch. It was mowed regularly.

"It's not being cut right now, because of logistical and structural issues," he said.

"I'm trying to get a company to help out to take care of some structural issues out at the cemetery. The graves are sinking and because the ground is sinking, if you drive a mower over it, the weight from the mowers will actually cause the ground to sink in. What I've already begun to do is pour poison on the grass. In the back, some of the grass is already browning."

Last month, the city of Gulfport sent a certified letter notifying him of code violations.

"It's an issue in our community,'' Mayor Mike Yakes said. "There is not only the code violations, but the respect of those lost and the survivors."

City Manager Jim O'Reilly said McKinnon had asked for time to correct the violations, but his staff heard nothing further.

McKinnon, 39, took over responsibility for Lincoln in 2009, when the late Susan Alford, and her son, Richard, transferred the sold-out burial ground that had been in their family for decades, its maps and records to the former marketing and advertising executive.

The Alfords also handed over $109,000 in "perpetual care'' funds for maintenance. McKinnon, who set up the nonprofit Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp. — which the state Division of Corporation records show is inactive — had many plans. He spoke of getting the cemetery listed as a stop on the state's Black Heritage Trail, of erecting a fence, paving the overgrown path that runs through the grounds and of organizing an annual memorial service. He planned to apply for grants and to hire a full-time employee to handle inquiries and locate prepaid plots for the 500 people yet to be buried at the cemetery at 600 58th St. S.

Six months after receiving the $109,000, only $25,000 remained. Most of the money was spent paying off bills and on initial cleanup, McKinnon said. The money is now gone, McKinnon said, but he is not accepting financial donations.

Instead, he is looking for volunteers to help.

"If you can't clean up and that sort of thing, donate some equipment,'' he added.

McKinnon, who said he took no salary for the project and that health problems have left him disabled, is dealing with other troubles. In February, the IRS filed a lien against him — unrelated to the cemetery — for about $120,000.

Still, he remains positive about the task he's undertaken.

"I do not have any regrets in taking on this project, but I have a great disappointment in people who complain and sit idly by,'' he said.

St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, whose mother is buried at Lincoln, is coordinating a volunteer cleanup effort on Nov. 19 with the help of the city of Gulfport.

"A lot of people who are calling about the condition, they want to get something done, instead of just keep talking about it,'' he said. "What has happened is that Sarlie has taken on way more than he can chew.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

. fast facts

Lincoln Cemetery Cleanup Day

8 a.m. Nov. 19, Lincoln Cemetery, 600 58th St. S, Gulfport. Call Wengay Newton, (727) 327-4664.

Condition of Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport still drawing complaints 11/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 5:52pm]
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