On Monday, February 27, a Gulfport woman’s preservation dream for a local cemetery became publically true. Her newly formed non-profit corporation has been given control of Lincoln Cemetery, a place where she has been caretaking and leading the way for other volunteers for the past 14 months.
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 Vanessa Gray’s efforts a vote of continuing historical significance.
“I came for a special moment for the city – the Lincoln Cemetery resolution – to express my support,” said U.S. Congressman David Jolly, R-District 13, at the August 2016 council meeting.
According to a Monday, February 27 Tampa Bay Times news report, a black congregation, Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, “wanted to take over the neglected property.” And, Pinellas County was planning to give the church $90,000 from the BP oil spill settlement to maintain it.
Since December 2015, “I’ve made it my mission to restore Lincoln Cemetery back to what it was intended to be: A peaceful, serene memorial garden where people can walk through and pay their respects to their loved ones and our fallen heroes buried there,” says Gray on the Facebook page dedicated to the Lincoln Cemetery Society.
The Times reported the church learned on February 27, 2017 that property owner Richard S. Alford of St. Petersburg had transferred ownership to Gray’s nonprofit named the Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc. on February 8, 2017.
According to a press release from Gray, “the property deed was recorded with the Pinellas County Clerk of the Court on February 14, 2017.”
Gray, 23, incorporated the nonprofit on June 20, 2016 and serves as its president. Her mother, Sharon Butler, 49, is vice president and is also a Gulfport resident.
According to a press release, the mission statement of the non-profit is “to restore and preserve the cemetery as a place where families can visit to pay their respects for generations to come.”
And, “now that the ownership of the cemetery is clear, the focus cannot just be on maintenance and preservation. [It must also include] developing the funding and infrastructure that will sustain it [into] perpetuity,” said Gray in the press release.
Currently, the cemetery faces $31,788.26 in code enforcement liens because the city maintained the property up until May 2016 and the amount keeps accruing interest, said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly on Wednesday, March 1. In the past, the city assessed the property $878 per month to mow the grass and periodically charged additional fees for special pick ups to take care of larger items like tree limbs.
O’Reilly, Gray and Butler met on Monday, February 27 to address the lien.
“We are treating this like any other private property,” said O’Reilly. The city’s due diligence is to collect the lien.
Established in 1926, the cemetery is considered an historical treasure covering nine acres at 58th St. S.
“I remember when the property had just changed hands and we [had] high hopes that there were going to be some good things going on there and that has not been the case,” said Mayor Sam Henderson at the August 2016 council meeting. “I want to thank the city staff that’s gone over there and collected debris piles, this council, the citizens for supporting the fact that we’ve chosen to continue doing the right thing by maintaining that property and the volunteers from military associations and local resident Vanessa Gray who have taken an interest. Our quest [is] to see this taken care of properly over time.”
For more information, visit lincolncemeterysociety.org.