Uncovering Stories at Lincoln Cemetery

A portrait of Emma E. Booker, buried at Lincoln Cemetery alongside her husband, hangs in a classroom at the high school named for her in Sarasota. Photo courtesy of the Sarasota School District.

The Lincoln Cemetery Society, in conjunction with community activist Corey Givens Jr., will be hosting a memorial and clean-up of Lincoln Cemetery on February 22 at 9:30 a.m. The event will be an opportunity for neighbors to lend a hand in the upkeep and preservation of the historic site at 600 58th St. S., which served as the main burial ground for St. Petersburg’s black population from its establishment in 1926 through the segregation era. In later years the cemetery fell into severe disrepair and was nearly forgotten, with records of those laid to rest there being lost to neglect, a fire and mismanagement. The Lincoln Cemetery Society, led by founder and president Vanessa Gray of Gulfport, took over care of the cemetery in 2016 and has been committed not only to restoring and maintaining it ever since, but has worked toward rediscovering the identities of the hundreds buried there, when they were interred and where.

 “It’s kind of hard for me to tell you just one or two stories,” Gray says, when asked what she’s discovered about those buried there, “because there’s so many amazing stories out here. And so many people that I kind of feel protective over.”

Gray and her non-profit, along with scores of community members and even students and teachers from neighboring Boca Ciega High School, have made significant strides bringing the names and stories of those buried in the cemetery to light and etching them permanently into the public record so as not to be lost again. While many remain unnamed, the identities of those who have been discovered reflect the diversity of lives that have been lived in and around the area. 

Three Civil War soldiers are buried at Lincoln, including John “Stable Arm” Lasker. Lasker was stationed in New Bern, NC, and earned this nickname thanks to the steadiness with which he held his rifle. Lasker is one of the stops on a walking tour marked with a series of wooden plaques created by the students at Boca Ciega. The students, under the direction of their teacher Dr. Alicia Isaac, wrote and published a book of collected biographies about individuals at the cemetery called “The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles.”  

Emma E. Booker, for whom an elementary, middle, and high school in Sarasota are named, was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in 1939. Booker moved from Live Oak in 1918 to teach at Sarasota Grammar School, which consisted of one rented room and orange crates as desks. Promoted to principal in 1923, Booker set about raising funds for a permanent school and by 1925 construction of Sarasota Grammar School was complete. In 1937 she moved to St. Petersburg to become principal of Davis Elementary, where she led not only the flourishing of that school but also earned her college degree at 51.

Also buried in Lincoln Cemetery is Chester James Sr., a key figure in the local civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, and was honored by both the NAACP and President Lyndon B. Johnson for driving voter registration up among black voters in St. Petersburg. James was committed to encouraging African-American citizens to become more involved in the democratic process at a time when blacks were discouraged or otherwise blocked from voting. The area of downtown St. Pete once called Methodist Town was renamed Jamestown in his honor. 

Students who participated in writing the “The Lincoln Cemetery Chronicles” will be on hand to talk history with cleanup participants on Saturday, February 22. More about the book, the Lincoln Cemetery Society and other upcoming events and efforts can be found at lincolncemeterysociety.org.

Chester L. James Sr., who pushed to register blacks to vote throughout the 1960s and 70s, is buried next to his wife Rachel, who was an activist in her own right. Rachel L. James founded the first private school for African-Americans in St. Petersburg.


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