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New keeper of neglected Gulfport cemetery has plans, few resources

GULFPORT

The plastic flowers were red, white and pink, chosen with care to honor a grandmother's memory.

But the serene graveyard visit Lakesha Baker envisioned rapidly faded as her car bumped along a rutted path past tumbledown headstones, hillocks of garbage and a small forest of weeds and untrimmed trees.

This was historic Lincoln Cemetery, final resting place for more than 6,000 African-Americans: veterans dating back to the Civil War, stalwarts who fought for racial equality, scions of black society and ordinary folk like Baker's grandmother, Helen Cummings, whose neighborhood Sunday dinners were replete with her signature sweet potato pie, dressing and collard greens.

"We love and miss you,'' reads Mrs. Cummings' tombstone, but on Mother's Day, two carloads of family had to pull weeds and shove aside debris to see the inscription.

"When you go out there, you have to step on bushes to try to find your loved ones,'' said Ruby Johnson, the late woman's daughter. "You don't know if you're going to fall into a hole or not. A snake can run up on you. Whoever owns it, they need to be sued.''

Therein lies the irony. The cemetery's new operator is Sarlie McKinnon III, a 38-year-old former marketing and advertising executive who undertook the project after seeing the derelict condition of the place where his father and grandparents are buried.

In January he launched a cleanup effort, though with little effect until about a week ago. The grounds have now been mowed, and much of the overgrowth cleared and garbage hauled away. He acknowledges, though, that there's still plenty to be done.

McKinnon assumed responsibility in December, when Susan Alford handed him the historic cemetery that had been in her family for decades. Alford and her son, Richard — owners of nearby Sumner Granite and Bronze Inc., which makes tombstones — were relieved to be rid of the sold-out albatross they say cost thousands of dollars to maintain.

One for causes, McKinnon accepted it under the auspices of his new nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp. His plans for the 9-acre Gulfport property at 600 58th St. S include getting it listed as a stop on the state's Black Heritage Trail, erecting a fence, repaving the road and organizing an annual memorial service. He also talks of hiring a full-time employee to handle inquiries and locate pre-paid plots for the 500 people yet to be buried in the cemetery that sits between Boca Ciega High School to the south and the Pinellas Trail and Royal Palm Cemetery to the north.

To help finance it all, McKinnon says he'll apply for grants and enlist community support. So far, though, he has been unable to drum up much interest. Further, with no experience running a cemetery, he admits to being overwhelmed.

"I didn't know the responsibility about having to go out and mark the graves (for those to be buried) and things of that sort until after we signed the contract. … What people don't realize is that the maintenance is probably the least of the problems,'' he said.

• • •

Upkeep of Lincoln Cemetery has been a recurring issue. A 1968 headline read, "Lincoln Cemetery: Rest in Rubbish." The article noted: "Some headstones are overturned. Some are tilted 90 degrees sideways. Some are broken in two. Some are surrounded with beer cans."

Then-owner Monroe McRae of McRae Funeral Home didn't dispute that the property was a disgrace. "Sure it is, but we'd have to pay out of our own pocket to keep it up," he said.

Cost also was a factor for the Alfords, who said they were supplementing a state-mandated perpetual-care fund to the tune of about $7,000 a year to keep up a cemetery that was no longer bringing in an income.

"We felt someone else could take care of it better than we could,'' Richard Alford said.

"I just wanted to retire,'' said his mother, Susan, 76. "So when Sarlie came along and he had some good ideas and everything, we signed it over.''

McKinnon, who says his health problems have left him disabled, is his new nonprofit's only officer. The treasurer and secretary resigned because of health and scheduling problems, he said.

"I'm trying to get a new board. I ask every person who calls me, and they say they don't want to get involved. I talk to other people in the community and they say it's in bad shape, but people see it as so much work.''

He has hired landscaping companies for the initial cleanup and someone to help with fundraising and public relations. He's paying them from the perpetual-care fund the Alfords handed over. He is taking no money for his work, McKinnon said. Of the $109,000 he received in December, $25,000 remains.

"In the research we've done, for cemeteries that size, we need to have at least $500,000 to $1 million so we can do what needs to be done,'' McKinnon said.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers wants to help. "My suggestion is to try to see if we can get it designated as a historic landmark,'' she said, adding that that could enhance the cemetery's eligibility for grants.

Flowers recalled attending a cousin's burial. "Oh, my God, it looked like a jungle. … Flooding had caused some of the caskets to rise up,'' she said.

That was in the 1980s, but up to two weeks ago, little had changed. Near its 58th Street entrance, larger headstones marking the resting places of prominent black residents presented a deceptive facade, but an arch through which funeral processions once entered had disappeared. McKinnon learned it had been toppled by grave digging equipment.

One recent morning, garbage spilled from an old staging area and discarded doors lay along the cemetery's path. Broken and lopsided headstones compounded the air of neglect.

The property has long been the bane of Gulfport officials. But police Chief Robert Vincent said he has seen progress recently at the hangout for truants and kids smoking cigarettes and marijuana.

"There's really no place to hide anymore,'' the chief said.

• • •

McKinnon's father, Sarlie McKinnon Jr., was a St. Petersburg sanitation worker who started McKinnon Burial Vault Service. He died in 1976 and is buried next to his parents. It was a visit to find the plot designated for his mother — Betty McKinnon-Singletary — that set McKinnon on his course of rescue. His mother refused to be buried in the neglected cemetery.

"It looks like I am the one who would be buried there,'' he said. "I don't have a problem being buried there. It just needs to be cared for.''

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or wmoore@sptimes.com.

Lincoln Cemetery time line

1926: Established by Reginald H. Sumner Sr., who also founded Royal Palm Cemetery.

1958: Bodies of two Civil War soldiers are among more than 100 moved from Moffett Cemetery, near what is now Tropicana Field, to Lincoln Cemetery to make way for African-American housing.

1957 to 1974: Owned by McRae Funeral Home.

1974: Resold to Sumner descendants.

1996: State inspectors say grounds "not being reasonably maintained."

1996: Cemetery plots sold out.

December 2009: Susan Alford of Sumner Granite and Bronze transfers the property to Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp. Contact is Sarlie McKinnon III, (727) 643-1031.

Sources: Pinellas Genealogy Society and Times files

Prominent burials

at Lincoln Cemetery

Dr. Ralph Wimbish, former NAACP president and civil rights leader, integrated lunch counters and sued St. Petersburg to integrate Spa Beach.

Dr. Robert Swain, first black dentist to build a clinic in St. Petersburg and civil rights activist who built an apartment complex that housed black Major League Baseball players. He, Wimbish and others fought to end segregation.

Pioneer developers Elder Jordan Sr. and Elder Jordan Jr.

Fannye Ayer Ponder, educator and civic and society leader.

Chester James Sr. lobbied for better housing. His wife, Rachel, founded St. Petersburg's first African-American private school.

Mary Louise McRae, believed to be the first female funeral director in Pinellas County.

Walter Postell, head bellman at the Princess Martha Hotel for half a century.

Louise W. "Mama Louise" Macon, owned the last house torn down to make room for Tropicana Field parking spaces.

Sources: Pinellas Genealogy Society and Times files

New keeper of neglected Gulfport cemetery has plans, few resources 06/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 6:12pm]

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