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St. Petersburg church to take over neglected African-American Lincoln Cemetery

In the foreground are recently uncovered gravestones at Lincoln Cemetery, with a field of covered graves in the background. BP funds will help take care of the historic African-American cemetery.
Published Feb. 1, 2017

GULFPORT — The perennially neglected Lincoln Cemetery, resting place of African-Americans dating back to a time when they could not be buried in the same earth as whites, has found a long-term caretaker.

The historic cemetery is being taken over by the nonprofit arm of St. Petersburg's Greater Mount Zion AME Church, which announced plans to ensure ongoing maintenance, build a road, fence-in the 9-acre property and use ground-penetrating radar to locate every grave.

Seed money for the effort will come from Pinellas County's $7.1 million BP settlement from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Lincoln Cemetery, located at 600 58th St. S next to Boca Ciega High School, will get $90,000.

The Rev. Clarence Williams, pastor of Greater Mount Zion AME, said he also will solicit additional funds from the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg to carry out the church's plans and help establish a perpetual care fund for the cemetery, which was established in 1926.

But the issue of who owns the property still needs to be resolved. Legally, it belongs to Sarlie McKinnon III, who took over the cemetery in 2009, hoping to remedy its neglect. He was unable to manage that.

McKinnon has turned over the cemetery maps to Greater Mount Zion AME's nonprofit, Cross and Anvil Human Services, but the county "wants us to have clear title to the property," said Williams, adding that lawyers are providing pro bono help.

Meanwhile, Vanessa Gray, a restaurant server, continues to volunteer her time to clean up the cemetery. In the year since she has worked with the help of family and other volunteers, the property — once a tangle of weeds, brush and rubbish — is almost unrecognizable.

"We've removed over 20 dump trucks of debris since we started," she said.

Williams said he is grateful to Gray, who began the effort on her own, and wants her to continue her work.

"My plan is for her to be the day-to-day person, to have her paid. She has put her heart and soul into this thing," he said, adding that Greater Mount Zion will take care of the occasional burials that still occur.

Monday afternoon, Gray and her mother, Sharon Butler, were joined by others in work that has included unearthing and restoring sunken and broken headstones.

Gray, 23, is white. She said she is committed to cleaning up and maintaining the cemetery out of respect for those buried there.

"I don't see color and I never have," she said.

Those buried in the cemetery include Civil War and other military veterans. It also is the final resting place of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a former NAACP president who integrated lunch counters and sued St. Petersburg to integrate Spa Beach, and Dr. Robert Swain, the first black dentist to build a clinic in the city.

It's also where Fannye Ayer Ponder, educator and founder of the St. Petersburg chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, and Louise W. "Mama Louise" Macon, who owned the last house to be torn down to make room for Tropicana Field parking spaces, are buried.

Last summer, the Gulfport City Council passed a resolution to recognize the cemetery's historical significance and to acknowledge the work of those trying to preserve it. The city has been handling basic maintenance at the cemetery, which has racked up about $20,000 in code enforcement liens, said city manager Jim O'Reilly. Only the City Council can forgive the liens, he said.

City Council member Yolanda Roman, who has been working with other Gulfport officials and the NAACP to resolve the problems at the cemetery, said she "has been very supportive" of the project.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, whose mother is buried at Lincoln Cemetery and who has organized clean-ups of the property, is "elated" at the latest developments. He commended Williams for "taking up this charge."

Williams said he plans to lobby the state legislature and Congress for funds to help local governments maintain cemeteries like Lincoln, which exist "because of Jim Crow laws that wouldn't allow black people to be buried with white people."

The Greater Mount Zion AME pastor also wants to educate young people about the historic significance of black cemeteries and to honor those buried at Lincoln "who have contributed to the greater good" of the community.

"Their stories need to be told," Williams said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes

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