1. Business

Historic African-American Lincoln Cemetery faces a tangled present and uncertain future

Rev. Clarence Williams (middle top) leads a closing prayer for a group of community officials and concerned citizens who met Thursday at the Pinellas Urban League to discuss the situation at Lincolm Cemetery. Ownership of the long neglected cemetery for African-Americans in Gulfport is now in limbo. St. Petersburg's Greater Mount Zion AME Church had planned to take control and use $90,000 from the BP oil spill settlement to maintain the property. But Vanessa Gray, a 23-year-old who has been volunteering to clean up the cemetery, appeared to beat everyone to it when she filed a quit-claim deed on Feb. 8. However, her deed may not be valid, and now on one is sure who exactly owns the cemetery. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]
Published Mar. 6, 2017

GULFPORT — Heads bowed, the African-American leaders held hands around the conference table Thursday.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, prayed fervently that their reinvigorated efforts to save Lincoln Cemetery, an historic African-American burial ground, would be "duplicated and replicated throughout the community . . . so that our loved ones who are buried there and loved ones yet to be buried there may know that we care."

But it will take many more prayers — and perhaps even legal action — before the cemetery's tangled present and uncertain future are finally resolved.

Those at the hastily called meeting at the Pinellas County Urban League were still reeling from the news that someone had snapped up the burial ground where blacks had been forced to bury their dead during segregation.

The new owner was Vanessa Gray, 23, who had spent the past 14 months volunteering her time, helping to clean up the neglected property.

But Gray, who is white, stunned the black community last week when she announced that she had secured the deed to the property on Feb. 8.

By taking control, she may have jeopardized the community's plans to rehabilitate and maintain the historic cemetery using $90,000 that Pinellas County had awarded from its BP oil spill settlement.

But does Gray truly own the cemetery at 600 58th St. S in Gulfport?

Gray says she does. But at last week's meeting, local leaders said they need to explore their legal options.

In late 2009, Sarlie McKinnon III, a former marketing and advertising executive, whose father and grandparents are buried at Lincoln, was handed the cemetery by the late Susan Alford. It had been in her family for decades. Alford and her son, Richard — owners of nearby Sumner Granite and Bronze Inc., which made tombstones — told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 that the sold-out cemetery cost thousands of dollars to maintain.

McKinnon, who now has a Georgia address, pledged to maintain the historic burial ground. He created a nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp., and collected $109,000 in perpetual care funds that were held in trust for the cemetery. He failed to upkeep the property and dissolved his nonprofit in 2012.

Frustrated by its neglect, others stepped in and organized sporadic clean-ups.

Then more than two years ago, the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg was approached by Urban League president Watson Haynes and other black leaders to help find a permanent solution.

Williams decided that his church's nonprofit, Cross and Anvil Human Services, should take over the cemetery. He applied for a grant from Pinellas County and was awarded $90,000 in BP money. But the award was contingent on Williams showing that his group had clear title to the property.

Gray beat him to it.

Attorney Peter Rudy Wallace, who represents Richard Alford, said his office and Alford began receiving inquiries from Gray last year. He said Gray's lawyer, Chris Furlong, showed him a document "indicating that ownership of the property was unclear."

Alford was surprised, Wallace said. While the Alford family no longer believed that it owned the property, Wallace said Richard Alford offered to sign any document necessary to resolve the supposed ownership. Alford signed a quit-claim deed on Feb. 8 on behalf of his family's defunct company, Sumner Granite and Bronze Inc., ostensibly handing ownership over to Gray.

"A quit-claim deed says, 'I'm not representing that I own anything, but anything I do own, I'm relinquishing to you,' " Wallace said.

Wallace, a former speaker of the Florida House, said the Alfords did everything they needed to transfer the property to McKinnon in 2009. However, the lawyer said it appeared that McKinnon failed to follow through and officially claim the cemetery.

"From a title insurance perspective, Mr. McKinnon's inaction resulted in a cloud being put on the title," Wallace said. "The Alfords would never assert ownership of Lincoln Cemetery, because they had parted with it entirely, as far as they were aware."

What happens now?

"I think it is, in large part, at this point up to Mr. McKinnon," Wallace said. "If he were to assert ownership, he may well prevail."

The Greater Mount Zion AME congregation and others with loved ones buried at Lincoln found out about Gray's acquisition on Feb. 27. Williams had called a meeting that evening to talk about the church's plans for the cemetery. Gray shared her news with the pastor just hours beforehand.

Gray said Friday she is not concerned about legal questions.

"It was all in public record and from our end and our research, our counsel and according to the state of Florida, everything was traced right back to Richard Alford," she said.

Furlong, her attorney, said he was not available to comment last week.

Williams declined to say what his next step will be. But he placed some blame on Alford.

"I understand that it was not his fault, but he asserted ownership last week," Williams said Friday. "How can he own it for one week and not for the whole time?"

The pastor also reasoned that Alford should also be responsible for the nearly $32,000 in Gulfport liens that were levied while it was supposedly owned by McKinnon.

If the change of ownership is valid, the liens will have to be paid by Gray's nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Society, which she incorporated in June.

On Feb. 28, Gray, the president of the nonprofit, and her mother, Sharon Butler, 50 (who has since stepped down as vice president), met with Gulfport City Manager Jim O'Reilly to discuss the ownership change. Gray brought along former mayor and family friend Mike Yakes.

O'Reilly told Gray the city will no longer perform basic maintenance on the property, as it has had to for years.

"Now that you own it, we won't go on the property," he said.

Gray must also now pay almost $32,000 in liens, a sum the church had hoped the Gulfport City Council might erase. She has launched a GoFundMe account to pay what is owed.

Williams once said he would work with Gray to save the cemetery. Now he wonders if she has any sustainable plans for the burial ground. It is unknown whether she can receive the $90,000 in BP money that was awarded to the church.

It was more than a year ago that Gray, a restaurant server, began working almost singlehandedly to clean up the trash-strewn property. She said she is determined to continue.

"When I walked in there, I was 22," she said. "I saw the beds, the couches, the box springs and the fire pits. I knew I could do something."

As months of hard work went by, she began to feel a sense of ownership.

Gray has no familial connection to the cemetery, however. But to her, the race of those buried there is not an issue.

"I don't see color and I never have," she told the Times in April. "To me, it's a respect issue."

But some in the African-American community feel betrayed.

"We were under the impression that she wasn't seeking anything in return and we applauded her for that," said Chico Cromartie, 45, who worked alongside Gray as a volunteer and whose great-grandmother, grandmother and an uncle are buried at Lincoln.

"She never reached out to the African-American community and she didn't notify members in an official way," Cromartie said of Gray's ownership of the cemetery. "She kind of did it in a back door, sneaky kind of way. I feel that it was disingenuous."

Gray said that was never her intention.

"I didn't mean to blindside anyone," she said. "I still want to work with everybody."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.


  1. The main exhibit center at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa once stirred the imagination with dinosaurs and stars. Now, it's empty, but on the verge of rebirth as a movie studio.
    The County Commission has set aside $2 million for the project as the Film Commission studies the demand for it.
  2. Snack-focused delivery app GoPuff launched in Tampa in February. It serves the area surrounding the University of South Florida. GoPuff
    Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Funyuns? GoPuff says it has the data for which snack Floridians love the most.
  3. "House Hunters," shot at a home in the Bayshore Beautiful area.  (Times | 2007) Tampa Tribune
    Whang, 57, was also a comedian and actress.
  4. The city is accepting applications for its Commercial Revitalization Program. The city has allocated $175,000 for the program this year.
  5. The Walmart supercenter at 990 Missouri Ave. faced fines in December for these storage containers in the parking lot. City officials are debating whether to make a short-term arrangement with the city two’s Largo stores this year so they can store their holiday inventory. City of Largo
    In the end, city commissioners say yes, with some reservations.
  6. More construction is on the way to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, thanks to $19.75 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants to rehabilitate the airport’s runway. (Times file photo)
    The work is expected to be complete by spring 2021.
  7. Job applicants seek information about temporary positions available with the 2020 Census, during a job fair in Miami on Wednesday designed for people fifty years or older. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The state added 22,500 jobs in August.
  8. Homeowner Cheryl Murdoch, 59, explains the workings of the Philips Smart Mirror in her bathroom. Murdoch and her husband live in the Epperson neighborhood in Wesley Chapel, home of the Crystal Lagoon, where some residents are piloting new health technologies inside their homes. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    In Pasco’s Crystal Lagoon community, AdventHealth and Metro Development Group are testing in-home technology aimed at keeping people away from the hospital.
  9. A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Tampa neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. Pictured is a Flock camera on Paddock Oaks Dr. | [Luis Santana | Times] LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    Atlanta-based Flock Safety has provided 14 area communities with high-speed, high-definition cameras for surveillance.
  10. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.