The church’s leader, Rev. Clarence Williams, said Wednesday, February 1 that attorneys are sorting through the cemetery’s current legal limbo. Once that’s settled, $90,000 set aside for the cemetery by Pinellas County from BP settlement funds will become available and the church will embark on its plan of action.
“We’re pretty confident that within the next 60 to 90 days we’re going to have this thing done,” Williams said. “It’s been a long journey.”
The problem stems from the fact that the cemetery’s previous owner, a non-profit corporation, was dissolved before transferring its assets, i.e., the cemetery, to another non-profit as required by law, he said. The Greater Mount Zion AME Church’s non-profit Cross and Anvil Human Services Inc. is poised to receive the assets once the legal obstacles are removed.
A public meeting will be held at the church, located at 1045 16th Street S., on Monday, February 27 at 6 p.m. to update the community on plans for the cemetery.
In the meantime, church members and community volunteers have been working on the nine-acre cemetery. Unruly vegetation that smothered the site for decades has been hacked away and the grass is being kept mowed. The plots look tidy and cared for. Fallen headstones have been righted and overgrown graves uncovered. There’s no trash. Handmade signs advise drivers to stay off the grave sites. A little parking area has been outlined with tree branches.
Williams said much of the credit for the cemetery’s new look goes to Vanessa Gray of Gulfport. In late 2015, Gray, then 22, took pity on the cemetery and singlehandedly started repairing one grave at a time, eventually mobilizing the community into action.
“She did a magnificent job,” he said. “It’s going to look even better. This is what happens when we can get local ownership of these kinds of properties.”
Gray continues working with the church to keep the cemetery maintained and the church hopes to eventually hire her to oversee it, Williams said. “She’s agreed to stay on and help us, and we’re so grateful to her,” he said.
There has also been talk about the possibility of a couple of area municipalities helping financially with the cemetery, Williams said.
The church has been working to become the cemetery’s caretaker for a couple of years. Once the legal hurdles are cleared, along with continued maintenance and repairs the church plans to identify all the grave sites, many of which are unmarked, and the names of those buried there, build a fence around the property and install a new road, Williams said.
It also aims to establish a revenue source for a perpetual-care fund to ensure there is money to maintain the cemetery in the future, Williams said, adding that no fund exists now.
On a less local level, he said, the church wants to raise awareness in the rest of Florida and the nation about the importance of preserving African-American cemeteries.
“The historical significance needs to be captured and these cemeteries need to be preserved and maintained,” he said, noting that segregated cemeteries were a result of a Jim Crow society that needs to be remembered to prevent history from repeating itself. “You can’t take all the shackles and melt them down. Some of them have to be put in museums.”
The cemetery, reportedly built in 1926, is the final resting place of some 6,000 souls, including Civil War veterans and members of the most prominent families in St. Petersburg’s African-American community. It lies near the St. Petersburg/Gulfport line and faces 58th Street S. at the intersection with 6th Ave S. just south of the Royal Palm Cemetery and the old railroad tracks (now the Pinellas Trail).
In recent years the city of Gulfport has been mowing the cemetery as required by state law to ensure public safety.
“I have been informed lawn care and upkeep continues to be performed by local volunteers,” Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly said in an email on Monday.
Gulfport has liens totaling some $31,093.59 pending on the property for mowing and maintenance, he said.
“The city has not taken any further action, pending resolution of ownership issue,” he said.
Gulfport City Council approved a resolution last August to continue recognizing the cemetery’s historical significance.
Councilmember Christine Brown, who also heads the Gulfport Historical Society, said Monday that the society had decided to stand down on its past proposal to become the cemetery’s steward.
“The Gulfport Historical Society made the decision to step back and allow other organizations with more resources to bring the cemetery up to the significance it deserves,” she said via email.