St. Pete’s Historic Cemeteries and a Time for Reconciliation
There has been much news about the Hines–Tampa Bay Rays proposal to build a new stadium in St. Petersburg, just southeast of Tropicana Field. It’s not just a stadium, however, but a 20-year $6.5 billion proposal to redevelop the 86-acre area of the historic former Gas Plant neighborhood. The proposed redevelopment calls for 6,000 residential units, including 1,200 affordable and workforce units both on- and off-site; a hotel; 14,000 parking spaces; a refurbished park along Booker Creek, which meanders through the site; an entertainment venue; and space for and a $10 million contribution to a new home for the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Proponents of the development highlight anticipated jobs creation, economic stimulation of the surrounding area, and, most notably, revival of the African American sense of neighborhood devastated by previous development and failed promises and expectations.
Little noticed in the proposal, however, is a commitment to undertake identification of descendants connected to the former Oaklawn Cemetery, develop an archaeological work plan for the cemetery, and establish a “garden of remembrance.” What is this latter proposal all about? The short answer is that Tropicana Field is also the site of an early city cemetery known as Oaklawn Cemetery.
Among St. Petersburg’s first cemeteries were Moffett, Evergreen, and Oaklawn. Oaklawn Cemetery was located at what is now the west parking area at Tropicana Field, and Moffett and Evergreen were co-located just south of Oaklawn, largely beneath what is now I-175.
Moffett Cemetery was dedicated in 1888, the same year as the founding of the city, as a burial ground for Civil War veterans. Originally the cemetery included both whites and African Americans. Two Civil War veterans are known to have been buried at Moffett (or adjacent Evergreen), but there may have been many others. Moffett Cemetery was named after David Moffett, an early settler and St. Petersburg’s first mayor. Moffett himself is buried at Greenwood Cemetery, which was established in 1897 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Street and 11th Avenue S.). After the establishment of Greenwood, Moffett became essentially an African American Cemetery. According to the USF African American Burial Ground and Remembering Project, Evergreen Cemetery was informally established as a segregated African American cemetery as early as 1900. It may have been part of a segregated western section of Moffett.
North of the Moffett and Evergreen cemeteries, generally around the Tropicana parking area west of 16th Street S., was Oaklawn Cemetery. Oaklawn was founded by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) and the local chapter of the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Union of America in 1906. Oaklawn was primarily for whites but included a segregated area for Black burials. The cemetery also included Civil War veterans. Oaklawn Cemetery was also known as Grandberry Hill Cemetery. Evergreen Cemetery was acquired by S. D. (Samuel David) Harris in 1908. In 1910 Harris acquired Moffett. In 1913 the Carpenters’ and Joiners” Union conveyed their interest in Oaklawn Cemetery to the IOOF, and in 1917 the IOOF sold the cemetery to Harris.
Samuel Harris is a fascinating but little-known figure in early St. Petersburg history. Born in 1866 in Sumter County, he relocated to Clearwater as a child with his parents. As a young man he became a seaman and ship master. In 1894 he gave up his seaman’s life and became an orchardist. He next established a general merchandise and feed store in St. Petersburg in 1905. In 1908, after completing training in Macon, Georgia, and passing the State Board of Health examination for embalmers, Harris became an undertaker. His funeral home was located at 674 Central Avenue. He continued in the undertaking profession until 1921, and then became a real estate investor. He also had a distinguished career in local politics and played an important role in the creation of Pinellas County.
In 1921 Harris sold his undertaking business along with Oaklawn Cemetery to James M. Endicott and Sarah K. Cowen, owners of Endicott Funeral Home. Three years later Endicott and Sarah Cowen Masterson sold all the unsold lots in Oaklawn, Evergreen, and Moffett cemeteries to Reginald H. Sumner. Sumner was a prominent St. Petersburg contractor, real estate investor, and county commissioner. Among his business interests was Sumner Marble and Granite, Inc. He also owned Royal Palm Cemetery (1st Avenue and 55th Street S.), which is nearly adjacent to Lincoln Cemetery. Royal Palm was a historically white cemetery; Lincoln was established by Sumner in 1926 for African Americans. Why the name Lincoln was chosen for the cemetery is unknown. Likely it was because President Lincoln was a hero to many African Americans.
Not-So-Final Resting Places
On March 29, 1926, the city of St. Petersburg passed Ordinance No. 440-A. The title of this ordinance reads: “An ordinance declaring that public interest and public health demand the removal of bodies of deceased persons from Moffett, Evergreen, and Oakland cemeteries and be interred in Royal Palm Cemetery and the colored cemetery adjacent thereto, ordering the removal thereof at the [expense?] of the city…” The ordinance goes on to state that the cemeteries concerned are poorly kept and “constantly used by the public as a passage way and are unsuitable for a resting place for the dead…” All persons were to be buried “in a location of equal dignity to the place now occupied by said bodies… and in a manner in keeping with the situation in life of said deceased persons then living.” The “colored cemetery” was not referred to as Lincoln Cemetery in the ordinance and was perhaps unnamed at the time.
An additional reason for closing the cemeteries and relocating the burials was that doing so would open up 4th and 6th Avenues South and “greatly” clear-up “thoroughfares on the south side.” Subsequently a new “Bay to Bay” street was opened on 5th Avenue South relieving congestion on Central Avenue. Fifty burials were removed from Evergreen Cemetery to facilitate the roadway in 1926. The following year, 86 unknown persons were removed from Moffett Cemetery and reinterred in Lincoln.
For unknown reasons only a portion of those interred at the three cemeteries were removed immediately after the 1926 ordinance. The grounds of Moffett Cemetery were actually improved, and as late as 1953 there were still persons buried there. In June 1953 McRae Funeral Home put out a plea for those with relatives buried there to make arrangements for them to be relocated, as a youth center for African Americans was planned for the site. In 1958 approximately 225 burials were relocated from Evergreen to make way for an apartment complex. Ownership of Lincoln Cemetery was transferred from Sumner to McRae Funeral Home in 1957. In 1958 approximately another 150 bodies were moved from Moffett and/or Evergreen Cemeteries to Lincoln. In 1976 a few human remains were uncovered during construction of I-275 in the vicinity of Evergreen. According to a 1987 Times article, after consulting with McRae Funeral Home, a representative of Lincoln Cemetery stated, “It appears that no records were kept identifying any of the burials. They were simply placed in metal boxes, then in wooden boxes….” They were reinterred in an area of Lincoln Cemetery known as “Removals from Evergreen.”
In 1967 St. Petersburg’s city boundaries were changed to exclude land occupied by Lincoln Cemetery and adjacent areas, and the land was then annexed by Gulfport. This action was triggered by a rezoning application filed to permit a trailer park on 16 acres of land east of Lincoln. The land was owned by Dr. J. C. Benefield, a former St. Petersburg city council member. Rather than accommodate the rezoning request, the St. Petersburg city manager recommended “de-annexing” the property to Gulfport, stating it would be difficult and expensive for the city of St. Petersburg to provide services to the parcel. In newspaper accounts of the matter there is no indication of discussion of the appropriateness of transferring jurisdiction over a cemetery, which was the resting place of primarily St. Petersburg residents, to another city.
Gulfport’s mayor did not learn of the proposal until St. Petersburg City Council had already approved it. Gulfport City Council ultimately approved the transfer on a split vote, and only after Dr. Benefield had agreed to pay for sewer and waterline extensions. The dissenting members objected that the proposal was not “economical” and only part of the land would be taxable.
Lincoln Cemetery was sold to Sumner Marble and Granite in 1974 (Reginald Sumner himself had died in 1949). In 2009 Sumner changed the name of its company to Lincoln Cemetery, Inc. In 2017 the cemetery was purchased by the Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc., which was superseded by the Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Park Corp, and finally superseded by the Lincoln Cemetery Society, Inc. The society is operated by a board of eight Gulfport residents with Vanessa Gray serving as president. Prior to acquisition by the Lincoln Cemetery Society a perpetual care fund of $109,000 was depleted. The society also inherited a $30,000-plus debt to the city of Gulfport for prior maintenance, which has yet to be paid, and the society has struggled to maintain the cemetery primarily through volunteer service. Recent maintenance has been undertaken by the society and the Gulfport Veterans of Foreign Wars. Maintenance is no longer provided by the city.
Dignity for Known and Unknown Burials
In 2018, Cardno Limited, an infrastructure and environmental services company, conducted a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey to facilitate confirmation of any remaining graves under the Tropicana Field parking lots. The survey identified two possible graves and seven “areas of interest.” The survey report also noted that it is likely that there are also disarticulated human remains mixed within the soil that could not be detected through GPR.
While development displaced or covered over unknown burials under Tropicana Field, records of persons interred at Lincoln Cemetery are also incomplete. Many records were lost in a fire at McRae Funeral Home. The Pinellas Genealogy Society has identified 6,503 recorded burials at Lincoln Cemetery. Only three Civil War veterans have been identified to date at Lincoln, two of which are African American and one white. It is estimated there are 4,000 unmarked graves at Lincoln, most of which are graves of persons unknown.
Civic leaders and others of historic record known to be buried at Lincoln Cemetery include Emma E. Booker, William and Thelma Booher, Lewis Dominis, John Evans, Lillie Green, Cora Higgins, Chester James, Sr., Elder Jordan, Sr., Elder Jordan, Jr., Mary Louise McRae, Fannye Ayer Ponder, Walter Postell, Dr. Robert Swain, Parker Watson, and Terrence and Dr. Ralph Wimbish.
The African American Burial Ground Remembering Project (AABG) is based at the University of South Florida. Its mission is to collaborate with Tampa Bay African American communities “to recover histories that were paved over.” The project is researching and collecting oral histories and telling the story of Oakland, Evergreen, and Moffett cemeteries. The AABG is in the beginning phase of new genealogical research on African American cemeteries in St. Petersburg, including a master listing of those reported buried in those cemeteries. That effort is coordinated by Drew Smith, associate librarian at USF. He is seeking volunteers to examine early Pinellas County death certificates for people likely to have been buried at Oaklawn, Evergreen, and Moffett. Work on Lincoln Cemetery is planned to follow.
Ownership of Lincoln Cemetery has been in dispute since 2017. While the Lincoln Cemetery Society claims title to the property and has struggled to provide maintenance for the past few years, they have been inhibited from seeking grants as their title to the property is clouded. Title is also claimed by Greater Mount Zion AME Church. Recently the two parties have come together to try and resolve the matter.
The president of the Lincoln Cemetery Society is Vanessa Gray. She and Reverend Clarence A. Williams of Greater Mount Zion recently have been in discussion about how the title to Lincoln can be resolved and the two organizations work together. She says she is “very excited that we can come to a resolution that’s good for Lincoln.” Pastor Williams states, “Vanessa Gray has done a wonderful job trying to maintain Lincoln Cemetery. She has taken on a monumental task and poured her heart into this work. She reached out to me about this sacred space, and we feel that we can come together and work something out. We are looking at a new oversight board that can develop the necessary resources to maintain the cemetery. This is not just a local matter. This is part of a larger, national effort to restore and honor African American cemeteries.”
As we approach the Thanksgiving season these are hopeful developments that may bring needed dignity to those who were buried at Oakland, Evergreen, Moffett – and particularly to the unknown burials at Lincoln Cemetery – and healing to their families and descendants.
Will Michaels is a former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and The Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Reach him at email@example.com.