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Volunteers fix up Gulfport cemetery


Lincoln Cemetery is beginning to look like the proud resting place of generations of African-Americans that it is.

High weeds, many growing over headstones, were cut down Saturday by 150 volunteers who answered the call of St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton Sr. to restore dignity to the privately owned cemetery.

Cars and trucks packed the sides of the roadway into the nine-acre cemetery that opened in 1926. The people who spilled out of them — black and white, young and old — were there because, well, because it was the right thing to do.

They weren't dressed in black and carrying tissues to wipe their eyes. They were dressed in T-shirts and work gloves and carried pruning shears and pushed mowers. They carried towels to wipe their brows.

Newton had received several complaints from residents prompting him to set up the cleanup. But his constituents weren't the only ones he was thinking of.

His own mother, Susie Mae Newton, who died in 1985, is buried at the back of the cemetery where the weeds were particularly high, and he had not been able to find her headstone in more than a year.

But, he finally found it and cleaned it off. And then he cleaned off the other dozen or so graves in the same row. He estimated the volunteers uncovered about 400 graves. About 6,500 people are buried there. Not all the graves were overgrown, but many were.

"All I've been thinking about is all those people covered up in the back," Newton said after the cleanup. He's not through, he said. He will have another cleanup in a couple of weeks— Dec. 10 from 8 a.m. to noon.

The condition of the cemetery has been deteriorating, Newton said, because Sarlie McKinnon III, the man who agreed to take over care of the property two years ago, ran out of money. He was given $109,000 for its upkeep, but that money went fast. McKinnon was not at the cleanup.

Newton doesn't fault him but said he wishes McKinnon would have used the money to buy equipment instead of spending it to get the cemetery cleaned up. Newton can find the labor, but not the big commercial mowers needed to mow the grass.

Among those helping out Saturday was Arthurene Williams of St. Petersburg. She has many family members buried there, including an infant daughter, whose grave she was unable to locate.

"Since no one has any money, we need to just do what we're doing," she said. "It's going to look beautiful, but it's a waste of time if it's not kept up."

James Kelly of St. Petersburg is a boyhood friend and Masonic brother of McKinnon. The 77-year-old promised to help his friend and has been doing what he can for the past two years to keep the place looking good. He concentrated on the front of the cemetery that's visible from the road.

"We need volunteers to come out constantly to help out," he said.

Fast facts

Who's buried there?

There are some 6,500 people buried in the 9-acre Lincoln Cemetery, located on 58th Street S in Gulfport between Boca Ciega High School and Royal Palm Cemetery. The cemetery is closed, which means the only burial spots left — there are about 500 — have already been purchased, usually as part of a family burial site. While many of the graves have no headstones, there are a couple websites where names of those buried can be found:

Pinellas Genealogy Society:

Find a Grave (veterans):

Volunteers fix up Gulfport cemetery 11/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 2:33pm]
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