GULFPORT — Greater Mount Zion AME Church said it has the true deed to a historic African-American cemetery and will fight for control of the property.
That could mean going to court and challenging the deed that Vanessa Gray, a 23-year-old Gulfport resident, obtained in February.
Gray, who is white, believes her deed gave her organization control of the predominantly black burial ground. Hundreds of black people, including Civil War and other military veterans, have been buried since 1926.
She has been volunteering to clean up the cemetery for more than a year and has spearheaded clean-ups of the 9-acre property. She also established the Lincoln Cemetery Society to run the cemetery and serves as president.
The Rev. Clarence Williams and his African-American congregation once welcomed Gray's help caring for the neglected cemetery. He said his St. Petersburg church recently obtained what it believes is the real deed to the property and plans to challenge her deed in court.
"We believe that we have a claim to the title and we don't feel that what they have will stand scrutiny in court," Williams said Monday. "We're very comfortable with our legal position."
The church made its decision after Greater Mount Zion's attorney Tamara Felton-Howard met with Gray, her lawyer and a member of her nonprofit's board.
"We are leaning towards litigation," Felton-Howard said. "But we would love to resolve it."
Gray said she and her nonprofit plan to continue working at the cemetery.
"We're just going to keep on cleaning up Lincoln Cemetery and restore it," she said. "I'm just hoping that we can continue."
The dispute between Gray and the church erupted in February. Williams and other black leaders were surprised when Gray announced she had obtained the deed. So ended a two-year effort by Williams, undertaken at the behest of the black community, to gain control of the cemetery so his church could preserve it.
Greater Mount Zion's original plan was for its nonprofit arm, Cross and Anvil Human Services, to take over responsibility for the cemetery, including building a road through the 9-acre property and getting a firm to use ground-penetrating radar to find sunken graves.
The church applied for and was awarded $90,000 from Pinellas County from its BP oil spill settlement for help with its plans for the cemetery. However, the money was contingent on Greater Mount Zion showing that it had clear title to the cemetery at 600 58th St. S.
Gray obtained what she said is proof of ownership first, in the form of a quit-claim deed signed by Richard Alford, whose family once owned the cemetery. The Alfords, who are white, were one of St. Petersburg's pioneering families. In 2009, though, Sarlie McKinnon III — a black advertising executive whose relatives are buried at Lincoln — was given the cemetery from the corporation owned by Richard Alford's late mother Susan. McKinnon also received $109,000 in perpetual care funds held in trust for the cemetery. He created a nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp., which he dissolved in 2012.
Lawyer Peter Rudy Wallace, who represents Richard Alford, has said that 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. The lawyer said Alford offered to sign anything to resolve ownership.
However, the church said it does not believe Gray got the right person to sign over the deed.
"Mr. Alford does not have the authority to execute the deed," Felton-Howard said. "We don't believe that's a valid conveyance of the property."
Last month Wallace, a former speaker of the Florida House, said that while the Alfords had done everything they needed to transfer the property to McKinnon, he failed to follow through and officially claim Lincoln Cemetery.
Wallace also said that 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."
Felton-Howard said McKinnon, who has a Georgia address, has since signed over his title to Mount Zion's nonprofit. McKinnon could not be reached for comment.
Williams said his congregation has raised money to pay legal costs for the fight and will appeal for financial help.
Gray's group launched a GoFundMe page on March 2 to pay the almost $32,000 in liens levied by the city of Gulfport on the neglected cemetery. As of Monday, the fund had raised $130.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.