Groups, city of Gulfport rally to save historic Lincoln African-American cemetery

The neglected site gets attention from the NAACP and Gulfport.

GULFPORT — After decades of neglect of Lincoln Cemetery — the African-American burial ground where Civil War and other military veterans are interred alongside prominent and ordinary citizens — help is on the way.

That's in addition to those who are assisting 22-year-old Vanessa Gray, a restaurant server who single-handedly began cleaning up the graveyard in December.

A posting for volunteers on her Lincoln Cemetery Society Facebook page drew about 30 volunteers the day before Mother's Day.

"It was awesome," said Gray, who lives near the nine-acre cemetery. "Honestly, everybody is so nice and so grateful for what I'm doing. They hug me and shake my hand and say, 'Thank you.' "

Simultaneously, the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, the Gulfport Historical Society, St. Petersburg's Greater Mount Zion AME Church and Gulfport city officials also are trying to save the cemetery at 600 58th St. S.

"These souls belong to Gulfport and they deserve to be respected and cared for," said council member Christine Brown, who also heads the Gulfport Historical Society.

NAACP lawyer Brian Battaglia has asked the Gulfport City Council to consider passing a resolution that acknowledges the history and importance of the cemetery. Council member Yolanda Roman, supports the move.

"The resolution puts in writing that we, the city of Gulfport, in partnership with many entities, we're all on the same page," Roman said, adding that it would also enhance efforts to solicit additional help.

The lack of upkeep at the cemetery that was established in 1926 is not new. A 1968 headline read: "Lincoln Cemetery: Rest in Rubbish." Almost seven years ago, the late Susan Alford of Sumner Granite and Bronze, whose family had owned the cemetery for decades, transferred it to St. Petersburg resident Sarlie McKinnon III. His father is buried at Lincoln. Alford also handed over $109,000 in "perpetual care" funds to maintain the property. Months later, McKinnon said the maintenance had already depleted most of the money.

With the city of Gulfport responsible basic maintenance, the property is now burdened with $27,000 in code enforcement liens.

Gray is among those who have tried to help care for the grounds over the years. Her story has inspired others.

"The last cleanup, I cried. I was so overwhelmed with the support," she said.

Brown says the historical society has plans to save the cemetery.

"Our plan is to create a foundation that would gain money of up to a million dollars," she said.

"We feel that would be the right amount to say we can take this on forever, provide perpetual care, restoring the cemetery, creating some history lessons."

After the society met Monday, she outlined possible ways a foundation would work.

"One, the city would foreclose on the property, maintain ownership with the understanding and agreement that the foundation would manage and care for the cemetery," she said in an email.

A second option would see the city foreclosing on the cemetery and asking citizens to authorize a transfer of ownership to the foundation. Her group's "preferred outcome," though, would be that Lincoln Cemetery be made a state park, with the society managing both the foundation and the property.

"This scenario would ensure that the cemetery would be protected for generations to come," Brown said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes