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When the dead at Lincoln Cemetery speak, she hears — and helps

Vanessa Gray removes dirt and weeds from graves in Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport on Tuesday. She used to play in the cemetery as a child, and has now committed to restoring the unkempt grounds, which have fallen into disrepair over the years.
Published Apr. 17, 2016

GULFPORT — For four months, Vanessa Gray has been shoveling, prodding, uncovering and talking to the graves of the forgotten dead in Lincoln Cemetery.

"It's like you look around and you can almost feel the despair: 'Hey, uncover my name,' " Gray said of those buried in the unkempt grounds where more than 6,000 African-Americans — three of them Civil War veterans — have been laid to rest.

From the start, Gray listened.

"I said, 'If you guys want help, I'll be the one to help you.' "

Since December, the 22-year-old who played in the cemetery as a child has uncovered four rows of graves in the eastern end of the neglected Gulfport cemetery, which is next to Boca Ciega High School.

Gray says she's unearthed bone fragments and a skull from open, sinking graves. She's reinterred remains. She's restored headstones to their rightful places. The former Girl Scout also is making new headstones using concrete from Lowe's and foam letters from Walmart.

Two weeks ago, after telling the Gulfport City Council about her newfound passion, she recruited volunteers who plan to help on Tuesday.

"This is not an overnight fix," she said. "It's going to take a lot of time and most of all, dedication to fix what Mother Nature has done."

Gray grew up in Gulfport and Englewood, splitting time between her parents. She settled in Gulfport after graduating from high school in Englewood and lives with her mother. She had tried college for a semester but left, intent on pursuing the love for travel fostered by her father.

Her job as a server at the Hut Bar and Grill at John's Pass finances her hobby, but Lincoln Cemetery at 600 58th St. S produces no income in what she calls her "second job."

Why is a white person so committed to restoring a 9-acre African-American cemetery?

"I've had a lot of people ask me that same question: 'You have no family there. You have no ties there,' " she said. "I don't see color and I never have. To me, it's a respect issue."

She's taking a stand. Her great-grandfather is buried next door at Royal Palm Cemetery, where neat rows of floral memorials dot well-kept grounds.

"I won't go see him until I know that this cemetery is taken care of," she said.

Using a bare hand to brush dirt from a grave one recent evening, Gray spoke with familiarity about those buried in the cemetery that was established in 1926 by the same family that once owned Royal Palm Cemetery.

"The first person that I found over there was the Rev. David Purson," Gray said. "He kind of inspired me."

"You're standing next to a two-year-old boy that I found. He's right there," she said of the grave near the Pinellas Trail. J. T. Richardson was born on May 5, 1923, and died on Nov. 1, 1925.

Gray also pointed out the grave of John W. Sharter, who, according to the Pinellas Genealogy Society, served in the Spanish-American War and was a member of the 3rd Confederate Infantry. His remains, along with another of the three Civil War veterans and dozens of other remains, were moved from another burial ground near Tropicana Field and reinterred in 1958.

Gray later spoke of "Dorothy," whose grave, like others, had collapsed and became exposed.

"You can see right in," she said of those burial sites.

"Usually at the point that I see it, it is dirt and grass and you'll see this big blob. It looks like a big dirt pile. You actually see fragments. Once I saw a skull. To me, that's unacceptable. I've been actually finding their names before I cover them with dirt."

Charlotte Downey, a part-time Gulfport resident who was walking her dog with a neighbor, discovered Gray at work.

"At first, I thought someone was up to no good," Downey told City Council members on April 5.

Gray isn't the first to try to rehabilitate the cemetery, a final resting place for several prominent black St. Petersburg residents.

Sarlie McKinnon III, whose family is buried there, agreed in 2009 to take over the property from the late Susan Alford and her son, Richard. The Alfords, descendants of a St. Petersburg pioneer family and then-owners of Sumner Marble and Granite Works — which made tombstones — transferred the sold-out burial ground that had been in their family for decades, its maps, records and $109,000 from a "perpetual-care fund" to McKinnon. Most of the money was gone after McKinnon made an initial cleanup.

The Pinellas Genealogy Society, which published a book about Lincoln Cemetery, notes that it was established before a 1978 state law required perpetual care. Most burials had taken place before then. The group added that funds from burials since 1978 "did not build up a very large trust." Over time, regular maintenance fees eclipsed savings.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times in 2010, the Alfords said they had been supplementing the perpetual care fund with about $7,000 a year to maintain the cemetery where plots had been sold out since 1996.

"We felt someone else could take care of it better than we could,'' Richard Alford said then.

"So when Sarlie came along and he had some good ideas and everything, we signed it over," Susan Alford said.

At the time, about 500 pre-paid plots were still available. Complaints about the cemetery, also owned on-and-off through the years by McRae Funeral Home, date back decades.

Former St. Petersburg council member Wengay Newtown, whose mother is buried in the cemetery, and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, are among those who have organized cleanups. St. Petersburg residents Scott Hollman and his partner, Bill Sullivan, paid for a new sign for the property. Last year, the Rev. Clarence Williams of St. Petersburg's Greater Mount Zion AME Church began an effort to get McKinnon to transfer the cemetery to the church's nonprofit arm. So far, there's been no agreement. McKinnon did not return calls for comment.

Now the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, the city of Gulfport, Williams' church and the Gulfport Historical Society are all discussing ways to solve the intractable problem. Meanwhile, Lincoln Cemetery has racked up $27,000 in code enforcement liens as Gulfport continues to maintain the property.

City Council member Yolanda Roman speaks of being "truly hopeful" for a permanent solution. "Something just tells me that all of this noise cannot be for nought."

Gray is familiar with the history of temporary outrage and sporadic clean-ups and says her commitment is long-term.

"They deserve to be respected," she said. "I just know they want me there and they want me to keep on with what I'm doing. I can't give up on them."

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

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