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Boca Ciega High School students write nearly 200-page book about Lincoln Cemetery

From left, Kendrick Gray, Krista Burge, Thanh Tran, Jaleah Polk and Decker Lavely hold a copy of The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles in the Lincoln Cemetery. The cemetery is next to their school, Boca Ciega High School.
Published Jun. 15, 2017

GULFPORT

Lincoln Cemetery has flitted in and out of existential crisis for the past decade. As its vaults have flooded, its weeds have flourished and its tombstones have surrendered to the swampy ground on which they lie, ownership of the cemetery has passed among three different parties and its finances have run red.

For all its internal troubles, though, the cemetery does not draw much attention from the outside.

"We knew it was there," said Thanh Tran, 18, a recent graduate of Boca Ciega High School, which neighbors the cemetery. "But it was just a cemetery we passed by."

That is no longer the case for her.

Tran and a group of 51 other students from Boca Ciega High School are now authors of The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles, a nearly 200-page book about the condition, history and legacy of the cemetery. One goal of their book was to ensure that others did not pass by the cemetery without thinking about it, as they once did.

"Many people are unaware of the cemetery's presence and its predicament. Awareness could be the difference between survival and extinction," wrote Skylar Epstein, 18, in the introduction of the book.

Alicia Isaac, 59, is the editor of The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles and the teacher of its young authors.

Isaac is quick to give credit for the book to her students, but they maintain that it was she who inspired the project.

In the introduction to The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles, Isaac recounts the book's genesis. Early this year, she had observed a group of people cleaning graves. After talking to a volunteer, she began to tell her students about the cemetery's dismal state, its history and the group of volunteers working to maintain it.

Her students found a lot to talk about: the historically African-American cemetery had recently made the news because the volunteer Isaac had spoken to, Vanessa Gray, a 23-year-old white woman, had obtained the rights to it, surprising and upsetting some members of the African-American community.

Their discussions quickly moved away from Gray's race, though, and toward the plight of the cemetery, which is a 5-minute walk from their classroom.

Isaac took them to see it with Gray as their guide. They were stunned by the state of the cemetery.

Tran flipped through the issues. "Unmarked graves, environmental issues, trees growing out from between the tombstones …"

"Four thousand people buried unnamed," added Decker Lavely, one of the authors.

Isaac, a social studies teacher, let her students connect the dots to explain the cemetery's current state.

They quickly learned that Lincoln Cemetery's historically African-American label was not one of choice. The cemetery had been created in 1926 because the nearby Royal Palm Cemetery refused to bury African-Americans. The cemetery's current state, they concluded, stemmed from its racially segregated past.

The students were "proud, saddened and outraged," Isaac wrote in her introduction.

They began to lay out plans for a project to memorialize the cemetery.

"Originally the students were just going to do biographies of the buried," said Boca Ciega principal Michael Vigue.

"We weren't as serious at first," said Lavely. "But eventually we said, 'Let's make this an entire book.' "

Isaac, who holds three advanced degrees, had written a book previously. "They had no idea how much effort goes into it," she said. But she encouraged them to proceed anyway.

Students conducted environmental research, described technological processes for finding unmarked graves, wrote original poetry and interviewed family members of the buried. All the while, they began to see connections between the cemetery and its surrounding community.

Jaleah Polk, 18, happened to pick up a business card from a woman at a 5K run. A few days later, as she was researching and writing the stories of Edward and Mary Louise McRae, a couple buried in Lincoln Cemetery who had once been prominent members of the black community, she realized that they were related to the woman whose business card she had picked up earlier.

Writing the book was a learning opportunity for the students, said Isaac. "I wanted them to understand the complexity of historical and community issues."

In the end, she said, "They took complex views of what people thought was a simple issue."

At certain points, the students, many of them seniors, became anxious to finish.

"We were editing the week before graduation," said now-graduated senior Krista Burge.

Isaac admitted that the process was difficult for her students. They had to self-organize to create artwork, layout and fonts for the book. Student photographers walked to the cemetery on their own time to take pictures of the graves. Essays went through endless cycles of edits and revisions.

But eventually the book was finished and published. The students now have high hopes for what it will be able to do.

"I hope it touches people's hearts to hear about the struggles of the past," said Tran. "It's really brought the situation to a new light."

Isaac echoed similar sentiments. "I want the book to be a conversation extender, to be a healing balm for the community."

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