Ownership of Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport is now officially being disputed between two local non-profit organizations that hold separate quitclaim deeds to the same land.
A quitclaim deed dated February 8, 2017 and signed by Richard S. Alford , a former officer in a corporation that at one time owned the cemetery as a land asset, was given to the newly formed Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc., a non-profit based in Gulfport headed by Vanessa Gray. Volunteers with Gray’s organization have been working at restoring the dilapidated cemetery since December 2015.
At a meeting on Monday, April 3 between legal council for a local church and the Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc., it was revealed that the church now holds a competing quitclaim deed for the cemetery signed by Sarlie McKinnon.
The legal question now: Which deed is more official?
“Now, we have two competing deeds,” said Tamara Felton-Howard, attorney for a local church’s non-profit group named Cross & Anvil Human Services. “We have the superior interest.”
The group is part of the Greater Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in St. Petersburg. The group’s quitclaim deed is dated March 10, 2017 and is signed by McKinnon, the former president of a corporation named Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park, Inc., that once acquired the cemetery as a land asset, said Felton-Howard. Acting on behalf of his corporation, which is no longer active, Felton-Howard said, “we believe has the authority to execute the deed” to Cross & Anvil.
“There are two entities that want to claim ownership of the Lincoln Cemetery,” said Christopher Furlong, attorney for Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc. “At one point, a stock transfer took place” between Lincoln Cemetery, Inc. (Alford’s company) and Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park, Inc. (McKinnon’s company), said Furlong, “and I don’t believe the property was transferred with the stock exchange. But, the church believes there was a transfer of the property.”
Felton-Howard said that McKinnon, “doesn’t have to” reinstate his corporation’s status with the state of Florida. “If you have a dissolved corporation, you can’t do new business, but you can take care of the winding up of the corporation.”
Who has the ultimate authority to sign a quitclaim deed to the cemetery is the question.
“If we are unable to come to an agreement, then we are going to have to litigate the issue of ownership of the cemetery,” Felton-Howard said. “It is not our preference to litigate. The church feels they own the cemetery.”
Established in 1926, the cemetery is considered an historical treasure covering nine acres along 58th St. S. across from the intersection of 6th Avenue. S. Most of the approximately 6,000 people buried in the cemetery are black.
Whichever organization takes official ownership will be responsible for the nearly $32,000 in code enforcement maintenance liens because the city of Gulfport maintained the property up until May 2016.
“We’re going to continue cleaning up Lincoln Cemetery,” said Gray. “No matter what happens , we’re still going to be out there with shovels and brooms. We believe strongly in restoring the graves back to where they should be. Just because a legal battle is going on, the bushes don’t stop growing. It doesn’t mean people stop looking for their loved ones. We have to focus on what we’ve been doing all along, which is action.”
Rev. Clarence A. Williams, pastor of the church and its non-profit group, referred all questions to Felton-Howard.