In the aftermath of a change in ownership in Gulfport’s Lincoln Cemetery that has recently been made public, a variety of questions have amassed as a result of area press coverage, social media, and meetings both in a government office and the community.
The cemetery faces 58th Street S. at the intersection of 6th Avenue S. just south of the Pinellas Trail, near the boundary between St. Petersburg and Gulfport. Most of the approximately 6,000 people buried there are black and over 1,000 are American armed forces veterans, according to an August 2, 2016 City of Gulfport resolution that gave community activist Vanessa Gray’s efforts to clean up the cemetery a vote of continuing historical significance.
The Gabber presents the following answers provided by a variety of primary sources. People quoted represent authoritative voices for each topic and were selected from over a dozen interviews conducted from March 1 through March 7, 2017.
How was the legal owner of Lincoln Cemetery determined in order to affect the recent transfer of ownership?
Answer by Peter Rudy Wallace, council for Richard S. Alford, the last known living officer of Lincoln Cemetery, Inc.: On October 1, 2009, Alford and his mother Susan S. Alford “did everything they needed to do and sold all of their corporation and its assets” to a corporation formed and owned Sarlie McKinnon. The sale included Lincoln Cemetery as a land asset.
Also in 2010, McKinnon did not file an annual report and as a result, the State of Florida conducted a routine administrative dissolution of his non-profit corporation in September of that year.
During McKinnon’s company’s ownership, the cemetery fell into disrepair.
“When Gray began contacting us in the summer of 2016 for the purpose of seeking ownership of Lincoln Cemetery,” said Wallace, “that is the first that Alford knew that McKinnon’s non-profit corporation had been dissolved.
“Alford’s family always wanted the cemetery maintained and taken care of.
“Gray has come forward over a period of almost six months expressing a willingness to do this and neither Richard nor I had heard from anybody else with any kind of request. Neither of us is hard to find.
“Gray made repeated visits to my office. She had me contacted by two different attorneys asking for assistance. And, in light of the commitment she has shown, it was Richard’s feeling that if he could assist in putting the property in the hands of someone demonstrating that commitment and dedication, it made sense to do so.
“I think for title purposes, Alford can act on behalf of Lincoln Cemetery.”
Answer by public record: View the February 8, 2017 Quit Claim deed here.
What is the status of the relationship between the Lincoln Cemetery Society, the non-profit that owns the cemetery, and Cross & Anvil Human Services, the non-profit arm of the Greater Mount Zion AME church, St. Petersburg?
Answer by Vanessa Gray, 23, president of the Lincoln Cemetery Society: Beginning with an email dated May 7, 2016, she said she contacted Rev. Clarence A. Williams, pastor of the church to state, in part, “I’ve been cleaning up Lincoln Cemetery for the last six months. I believe that we are working on the same goal. I would love to speak to you about what I’ve done. This cemetery has a special place in my heart. I hope we can meet and I could talk to you about my project.”
Then, Gray said, “in the fall of 2016, I exchanged several phone calls and texts with [Williams]. I requested face-to-face meetings to discuss details of how our two groups could work together toward the same goal, but none ever happened. I didn’t agree to any job role and I didn’t sign any relationship agreement.”
Answer by Williams: “Gray’s role with the Cross & Anvil Human Services group was a topic discussed over the telephone. She was gong to be responsible for the day-to-day operation and we would seek sustainable resources.”
The church was concentrating on administrative tasks, said Williams.
For instance, the church identified a list of action items with pricing that included fencing, mowing, landscaping, road repair, signage, and headstone markers then applied for and was recently awarded a Pinellas County BP grant for $90,000 to go toward restoration and maintenance efforts at Lincoln Cemetery. The grant was contingent on the church providing the county with proof of ownership.
The notice of the grant award was printed in the Tampa Bay Times on January 19, 2017. According to the Times, it was one of 28 projects receiving funding from county commissioners after months of deliberations as part of the $7.1 million settlement from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
On Monday, February 27, 2017, Gray and Williams met in person for the first time during a community meeting at the Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. church. Hours prior, Gray informed Williams her non-profit corporation, Lincoln Cemetery Society, held the Quit Claim deed dated February 8, 2017 as proof of ownership of the cemetery.
During the meeting at the church, Williams recognized the property deed and turned over the cemetery-related records he had and was using to assist Florida Vault for the “five to six burials that happen at Lincoln Cemetery every year. Gray is now responsible for internments that I have facilitated for the past two years.
“She never mentioned to me that she was interested in pursuing ownership of the cemetery. I was surprised. She was well aware of our plans.”
On the topic of property ownership, he said, “I think we are all going to have to defer to people that are knowledgeable of how title transfers and land transfers operate to get a further determination of her legal position or the position of the cemetery.”
On the topic of Gray’s restoration and maintenance work at the cemetery since December 2015, he said, “She’s doing a fantastic job. She deserves credit.”
People and groups doing administrative work also deserve recognition, said Williams.
What is the status of the $90,000 BP grant from Pinellas County?
Answer from Bill Berger, director of Pinellas County’s Office of Management and Budget: “The public monies have been set aside for the needs of Lincoln Cemetery and the owner of the property” regardless of who or what group submitted the application. The board of county commissioners directed that $90,000 be approved and they can provide further direction in the future, if needed. Generally, proposals for funding are submitted to the office then the staff works with the appropriate partner to identify any conditions and facilitate implementation. “Every case is different,” he said.
What does “exempt status” mean for cemeteries in Florida and why does this apply to Lincoln Cemetery?
Answer by Jon Moore, communications coordinator for Jeff Atwater, Florida’s chief financial officer who oversees the Department of Financial Services, which includes the division of funeral, cemetery and similar services: “Lincoln Cemetery is exempt from being regulated by our division’s oversight because on February 28, 2017, Vanessa Gray filed a notice confirming that the cemetery would maintain a not-for-profit status extending the exemption from the previous owner. Cemeteries that are not exempt are subject to state regulation and licensing.”
Answer by public record: View Florida State Statute 497.260 entitled, Cemeteries; exemption; investigation and mediation.
Moving forward, what are some of the plans of the Lincoln Cemetery Society?
Answer by Gray: “The cemetery is considered closed with active burials. There are about 500 family plots still available. We are going to keep up our maintenance and restoration efforts. In the near future, we’re going to have a survey done to establish a grid of where the graves are located. We’re going to address drainage issues so water doesn’t pool in the middle of the cemetery when it rains. There’s also a plan for fencing and for fixing headstones when we find ones that are cracked. We are working on a detailed plan for the future.”
Why was there a recent change in officers of the Lincoln Cemetery Society?
Background: On June 20, 2016, Gray formed a non-profit corporation named Lincoln Cemetery Society that identified herself as president, and her mother, Sharon Butler, as vice president. In the past week, Butler stepped down and has been replaced by Jon Harker.
Answer by Gray: “I wanted board members not to be related by marriage or blood. Harker has prior experience in managing a non-profit.” He is the past president of the Gulfport Little League.
What about the City of Gulfport’s maintenance liens on the cemetery property?
Background: City of Gulfport records: Currently, the cemetery faces $31,788.26 in code enforcement liens because the city maintained the property up until May 2016, which is when it was recognized that Gray and her fellow volunteers were taking care of the grass, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly on Wednesday, March 1.
Answer by Gulfport City Councilmember Yolanda Roman after attending the following three recent meetings relating to Lincoln Cemetery:
- Monday, February 27, 2017: At the Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. church.
- Tuesday, February 28, 2017: In the Gulfport City Manager’s office. The meeting with O’Reilly was requested by Gray to learn about the city’s liens on Lincoln Cemetery. When she arrived, she found Roman and a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times were also present.
- Thursday, March 2, 2017: At the offices of the Pinellas County Urban League. Due to the last-minute notice, the Gabber was not able to cover the meeting.
After Gray shows over time that she can handle ownership of the cemetery, “I would agree to talk about forgiving the liens,” said Roman. “Right now, no.”
Roman said she was in favor of talking about lien forgiveness if the church had obtained ownership.
On the matter of what Gray has been doing since December 2015 at the cemetery regarding maintenance and restoration, said Roman, “She’s been doing a good job.”
For further information about Lincoln Cemetery
The non-profit’s GoFundMe page for the purpose of satisfying the City of Gulfport liens on the cemetery property is gofundme.com/pay-back-liens-to-gulfport-fl.
The first official meeting of the non-profit society will be “in the next month or so,” said Gray. “We want to let everybody know what’s going on and what our plans to step forward are from here on out.”