Lincoln Cemetery Gets Help, Ownership Clarity

Faculty, staff and administrators from the Sarasota County Schools along with citizen supporters volunteered at Lincoln Cemetery on the morning of Saturday, November 4. They surprised Lincoln Cemetery Society President Vanessa Gray, center holding the white envelope, with gifts of gas cards and lawn maintenance equipment in addition to a commitment to help her with beautifying and restoring the cemetery for the next 10 years.

Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport got some out-of-town help recently when over 40 students and adults volunteered on the morning of Saturday, November 4 to beautify one specific gravesite and others around it.

Emma E. Booker, who is buried in the cemetery, is the namesake of three schools in Sarasota County: Emma E. Booker Elementary, Booker Middle and Booker High School.

The Sarasota team also brought donations in the forms of gas cards, gas cans and new lawn-care equipment along with a firm commitment to help.

“On behalf of the Booker High School family, the school district, the school board and superintendent, we are giving you tokens of our appreciation for taking over this project to maintain this cemetery,” said Booker High School Principal Rachel Shelley. “And, this is not going to stop here. We are looking for a partnership. We are looking to give back. Our Student Government Association has embraced this project and they have made a 10-year resolution” to help. “And it will continue beyond that.”

Established in 1926, the 600-acre cemetery contains graves of approximately 6,714 African Americans and 247 of those are recorded as military veterans, according to Vanessa Gray, president of the Lincoln Cemetery Society, the local non-profit that owns the cemetery at 600 58th St. S. “Different nationalities are also buried there, like a 13-year-old Asian boy” along with Jewish and Native American people.

Over 40 volunteers from Sarasota County teamed up on Saturday, November 4, 2017 to beautify the gravesite of the namesake of three schools in their district: Emma E. Booker. Students, faculty, staff and citizens also worked on gravesites around Booker’s. Students ranged in age from 4th grade through high school.

Earlier this year, a St. Petersburg-based church expressed interest in contesting the society’s ownership of the cemetery. The Greater Mt. Zion AME Church and its non-profit group named Cross & Anvil Human Services, both led by Rev. Clarence A. Williams, obtained deed records and retained legal council.

The society also retained legal council.

At stake was the ownership of the cemetery along with a $90,000 BP grant from Pinellas County. As long as the ownership issue remained unresolved, the county put the funds on hold.

Recently, Gray has met twice with Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice to discuss the cemetery’s ownership and direction along with the status of the grant. The cemetery is in his district.

Gray told Justice that no lawsuit has ever been filed by the church. “They were under the assumption there was a lawsuit,” she said.

In addition, Williams recently told Dr. Basha P. Jordan, Jr., one of the society’s advisors that “he is no longer pursuing ownership interest in Lincoln Cemetery,” said Gray.

As a result, Justice advised Gray regarding the next step the society should take in the workflow toward obtaining the county-level grant.

“We need to write to Janet Long, the current chairperson of the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, to clarify the cemetery ownership issue,” said Gray. “Our letter will help to make everything official at the county level.”

On August 2, 2016, during a regular meeting, Gulfport City Council members approved a resolution designating the cemetery as a location of historical significance. Congratulatory “thank you” declarations were numerous from council members and visiting dignitaries including U.S. Congressman David Jolly, R-District 13.

“I came for a special moment for the city – the Lincoln Cemetery resolution – to express my support,” he said at the meeting.

At that time, $27,000 in code enforcement liens against the property owner was on the books as the city had been doing basic maintenance on the grounds until May 2016, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly. When the society took over grounds-keeping responsibilities, the city stopped maintaining the property but interest on the amount owed continued to accrue.

As of November 8, 2017, the society owes the city $33,482.28.

In a March 8, 2017 Gabber story, during a time of frequent local- and national-level coverage by several media organizations regarding the ownership controversy, Gulfport Councilmember Yolanda Roman said that after Gray shows over time that she can handle ownership of the cemetery, “I would agree to talk about forgiving the liens [but] right now, no.” Also at that time, Roman said she was in favor of talking about lien forgiveness if the church had obtained ownership.

From left: Michael J. Shelton, founding member and executive director of Embracing our Differences, a non-profit philanthropic organization based in Sarasota; Shirley Brown, member of the Sarasota County School Board; and Vanessa Gray, president of the Lincoln Cemetery Society. According to the Embracing our Differences website, the group envisions “a world that embraces diversity, respects differences and actively rejects hatred and prejudice.”

What’s Next

“I am proud of the people from the Sarasota community making the effort to drive up here to do what they did,” said Gray. “To see that kids are interested about the history of the cemetery has motivated me even more because, now, I know it’s not just affecting Pinellas County. This is affecting, in a sense, all of Florida. The people buried here have shaped our community, our state and the civil rights movement.”

We are “excited to move forward with fundraising, fixing burial vaults and mapping the cemetery with ground-penetrating radar,” she said.

And the team from Sarasota?

Part of their future plan for Lincoln Cemetery includes donating a new gravestone for Emma E. Booker and her husband, who is buried next to her.

One comment

  1. Very nice article that helps clear up some questions regarding ownership & commitment. I do hope the County Commissioners recognize the hard work & commitment made by the Lincoln Society Members & sees the need to allow the funds set aside from the BP Grant to be used to improve the Cemetery grounds & repair damaged vaults. Funds are needed more than ever since the damage by hurricane Irma toppled many trees which need to be removed professionally before a visitor or volunteer gets hurt. We don’t want a tree to fall on someone while visiting a family grave. Great work by LCS, inc., thanks for the improvement to the north entrance to our fair city.

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