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Partnership to save historic African-American cemetery ends when one side takes control

GULFPORT — The effort to rehabilitate Lincoln Cemetery, a historic burial ground for African-Americans established in 1926, was a team effort:

A black congregation, Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, wanted to take over the neglected property. A white volunteer, Vanessa Gray, organized cleanups. Pinellas County planned to give the church $90,000 from the BP oil spill settlement to maintain it.

That partnership ended abruptly Monday when the church learned Gray took control of the historic cemetery.

Richard S. Alford, whose family has owned the property for years, transferred it to Gray's nonprofit, Lincoln Cemetery Society Inc., on Feb. 8.

Lincoln Cemetery Society is the name of the Facebook group Gray started to find volunteers to help clean up the cemetery. Gray, 23, incorporated the nonprofit in 2016, and is its president. Her mother, Sharon Butler, 49, is vice president.

The news shocked those working to save the cemetery.

"Before, nobody wanted it," said Gulfport city manager Jim O'Reilly. "Now everybody wants it."

The Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME held a meeting about the cemetery at his church Monday evening. Gray addressed a crowd of two dozen people.

Williams spent two years meeting with Gulfport officials to arrange for the church's nonprofit arm to take over and set up a maintenance plan.

But the pastor said he struggled to contact the cemetery's owner to close the deal.

Williams said Gray never told the church she planned to take it over herself.

"No one can argue the fact that she has been a great helper to that cemetery," he said, adding: "I thought we were working together. I did not know she had a different group."

Why didn't she tell the church about her plans? Gray said her lawyer told her not to do so.

A member of the congregation asked: Why does a white woman want to own a black cemetery? The pastor chastised that member. Later, they prayed with Gray.

"It has nothing to do with color," Gray said afterward. "We are all one."

Gray, a restaurant server, said she felt that since she was doing the work, she should take control. She has been volunteering for 14 months now and estimates her volunteers have removed 20 dump trucks of debris.

"I put everything into this," Gray said. "I started with a broom and a shovel."

But her legal move may upset plans already in place to care for the cemetery.

It doesn't appear that the church will fight for the cemetery. Williams handed over the cemetery records to Gray and said he will recommend that the county give her nonprofit the $90,000 that the church applied for. However, it's unknown if the commission will do so.

"We're just trying to get all the information and facts about the ownership," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said in a voicemail to the Tampa Bay Times. "We're tying to understand what their capabilities are.

"We were excited about that project moving forward under Mount Zion AME and Pastor Williams. We'll have to reassess it and be fair to everyone and put the dollars to best use."

Gray called the $90,000 "enough to start" maintaining the cemetery. But if she doesn't get the money, she said she'll seek grants and other funds.

The Gulfport City Council still has to decide whether to waive $27,000 in code enforcement liens. Gray is scheduled to meet with city officials today.

But the city manager told the Times: "I'm not going to referee this."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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