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Guarding their history, paying their respects

Roxie Williams holds an umbrella to shade herself earlier this month as LeRoy Milton spreads mulch around the graves of Williams’ father and brother in the Spring Hill Cemetery. She says before cleanups, “It was terrible out here. Like a dump.”

RON THOMPSON | Times

Roxie Williams holds an umbrella to shade herself earlier this month as LeRoy Milton spreads mulch around the graves of Williams’ father and brother in the Spring Hill Cemetery. She says before cleanups, “It was terrible out here. Like a dump.”

BROOKSVILLE — Families are reunited here, forever in a way, in the soft dirt of this 3-acre clearing just off tree-shaded Fort Dade Avenue.

Alyce Walker remembers nearly all of the names on the modest headstones, knows their kin — dead and alive — and is related to a fair number of the souls here at Spring Hill Cemetery.

Walker, a sprightly 81-year-old native of Brooksville, has taken on a sort of ownership of this cemetery over the years, which is no surprise given her self-acknowledged preference for land over money. But Walker is seeking assistance in her blueprint to preserve — and improve — the place where many of Brooksville's black families have buried their fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, sons and daughters, for more than 100 years.

"We have a lot of work to do here," Walker said. "It's a challenge. But it's making me stronger."

There have been setbacks in recent months: Vandals have twice knocked down sections of the wooden fence that rings the graveyard, seeking to make it down a gravelly path on the other side of the cemetery that leads deep into the brush. At the end of the road is an old, illegal dumping ground.

Walker said she has also struggled to recruit people who could trim weeds, scrub headstones, plant flowers and raise money for some of her loftier goals: an entrance gate, lights, water fountains, a pavilion and some of the perks that other cemeteries have. She hopes to have the site renamed the African-American Spring Hill Cemetery as a nod to its history and, in part, to clear up confusion with other similarly named cemeteries.

"I think it's worth making into a historical cemetery," Walker said. "So we need money and a lot of hard work and sweat. But I'm not getting as much support as I should."

Walker would like to start by replacing a section of the 1,800-foot fence, which was erected earlier this year as part of Matthew Traylor's Eagle Scout project with Troop 71. Traylor and his troop repaired the fence in May, also making sure to dig a trench just outside the fence, hoping to discourage intruders from driving their vehicles down the dirt path.

So far, it hasn't worked.

Traylor, 18, a graduate of Hernando Christian Academy, plans to pitch the project to another Eagle Scout before heading off to Wheaton College in Illinois in the next couple of weeks. But Traylor was clearly frustrated that the fence had already been damaged again.

"It's kind of ridiculous that people care that little about what people are doing in the community," Traylor said.

Some Brooksville residents, like Roxie Williams, have been coming to the cemetery regularly with hopes of sprucing up the grounds. On a sizzling afternoon last week, Williams and her boyfriend came to place red mulch by headstones belonging to her father, Excell Williams (1932-2008) and brother, Reginald Leon Williams (1956-1980).

Roxie Williams remarked how much the site has improved in recent years, especially since Walker — also a family member — had gotten involved.

"It was definitely needed," Williams said. "It was terrible out here. Like a dump."

As for now, Walker and a couple of her close relatives, Margaree Hicks and Etta Hicks, both lifelong Brooksville residents, are hoping another annual cleanup on Sept. 13 will renew interest in the cemetery among the younger generations.

"We're talking it up," Etta Hicks said. "We hope it makes people come out."

For Walker, seeing the Spring Hill Cemetery preserved has become no less than a way to honor her family and all the others who spent their lives working to own land.

The cemetery was passed on to Walker from an aunt who died in 1991. Now, Walker hopes to hand the land over to her 8-year-old great-grandson — and adopted son — Jeremiah.

"I'm taking him along with me every step of the way," she said. "I took the sword from my aunt, and he's going to take that sword from me.

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Guarding their history, paying their respects 07/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2008 7:20pm]

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