A community ‘PACT’ to preserve, share historic black cemeteries

  • March 26, 2015
  • /   Joe Vinson
  • /   community-dashboard
It started as an effort to keep the grass cut. In 2013, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward contacted the University of West Florida’s Division of Anthropology and Archaeology asking for help. The city was trying to figure out what to do with several cemeteries in historically African-American neighborhoods that had become overgrown from neglect. In many cases, it was difficult to determine who was responsible for the property. “We needed to sort that out, and that’s where government can be helpful,” said Tamara Fountain, the city’s chief operations officer. “These are private properties, so we have to be careful about what we do. We’ve got to make sure that we’re considerate and respectful and asking the right questions.” According to Margo Stringfield, a researcher at UWF’s Archaeology Institute, these concerns are not unique to Pensacola. [caption id="attachment_20590" align="alignright" width="300"]Margo Stringfield Margo Stringfield[/caption] “This is something that’s going on nationwide,” Stringfield said. “You have so many cemeteries that were established 100, 150 years ago, and as time goes by, often who is left as the owner-of-record doesn’t have much of a connection with the cemetery.” That effort led to other questions how to restore, preserve and highlight these cemeteries as community assets, rather than leaving them to deteriorate as eyesores. "The cemetery resources are not going anywhere,” said Stringfield. “We’re going to have to choose to let them be public nuisances and hazards and lose the information there, or we’re going to have to make them something that people will be proud to have in their neighborhood.” Thus the Pensacola Area Cemetery Team, or PACT, was born. Made up of professionals in the fields of history, archaeology, landscape maintenance, historic preservation and law, PACT’s mission is to “promote local historic cemetery preservation through an interdisciplinary approach to education and training and by fostering an informed stewardship base.” UWF has overseen the project and provided in-kind services. “Over the last year, we have facilitated a series of meetings of people who bring different skills to cemetery restoration,” Stringfield said. Sharing expertise Those monthly meetings covered best practices in conservation and landscaping, how to document and map cemeteries using geographic information system technology, writing grants, responding to vandalism and other topics. PACT utilized the years of preservation experience at St. Michael’s Cemetery to train volunteers and enlist professional restoration help. Much of the masonry restoration at St. Michael’s is handled by Monument Conservation Collaborative, a Connecticut firm that specializes in historic cemetery conservation. By sharing transportation costs with the St. Michael’s Cemetery Foundation, PACT asked MCC to do some preliminary work at these cemeteries, including leveling headstones and repairing broken markers. MCC’s masons did about $4,000 worth of restoration at these African-American cemeteries, but when they submitted their invoice, that work was marked off as an in-kind donation. Keep Pensacola Beautiful, formerly known as Clean and Green, is the local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit that empowers citizens to improve their communities. Their volunteers worked to maintain a trio of African-American cemeteries in the city: the Magnolia and AME Zion cemeteries that face each other across Brainerd Street on North A Street, and the Mount Zion cemetery at Cross and Guillemard Streets. “We’ve been trying to keep those cemeteries in a condition that people can walk in and visit some history,” said Gwinn Corley, executive director of Keep Pensacola Beautiful. “But we can’t spend all our time down there cleaning three cemeteries, so PACT was put there to get interest from people to adopt these cemeteries.” One of the goals of PACT was to create a manual of sorts to help guide the actions of future volunteers and cemetery stewards, and to give assistance to local governments. Corley said the manual is being finished up now and should be released in a few weeks. Both city and county governments are pitching in funding toward the effort. Escambia County Commissioners allocated $15,000 in Tourist Development Tax funds toward maintaing the Magnolia, AME Zion and Mount Zion cemeteries. At its meeting tonight, the Pensacola City Council will consider matching those funds. There are a total of 14 cemeteries within city limits that PACT has identified for restoration, but Stringfield says that’s just the beginning. “We needed something that we could manage, but what we’re doing within city limits can be applied countywide,” Stringfield said. [caption id="attachment_20594" align="aligncenter" width="850"]UWF archaeologist Catherine Eddins examines a damaged headstone at the Magnolia cemetery on A Street. UWF archaeologist Catherine Eddins examines a damaged headstone at the Magnolia cemetery on A Street.[/caption]

Vernacular markers made “By These Hands”

The grave markers in the Magnolia and AME Zion cemeteries date from the 1880s to the early 2000s. Many of the deceased were born during slavery or in the generation immediately after the Civil War. Their headstones are made from the materials available at the time — often cast concrete adorned with shells, tiles or rocks. In many cases, the names and epitaphs were scrawled into the still-wet cement by hand. “These historic African-American cemeteries tell a vivid story about the people buried there,” Stringfield said. “It’s a story of perseverance and the strong community that carried these people throughout life and into death. These markers are the key to finding out about these stories.” [caption id="attachment_20593" align="alignright" width="300"]The The "dancing ladies" on Clora Stewart's gravestone[/caption] Take, for example, the marker for Mrs. Clora Stewart, who lived for nearly a century, from 1869 to 1961. Her headstone is made of brick with a cement overcoat. The lettering was inscribed by hand, and various items were pressed into the cement to create an image of two dancing ladies. Their hats were made with a drawer pull, the faces with a ratchet wrench or similar tool, the bodies made by turning a church key sideways and skirts made from what appear to be letterpress spacers. Prior to the work done by MCC and Keep Pensacola Beautiful, it would have been difficult to see and appreciate the details in Mrs. Stewart’s headstone. “In these cemeteries, as in other cemeteries, as the ground settles some of these markers get tipped sideways,” said Catherine Eddins, community outreach coordinator at the UWF Archaeology Institute. “And that one has finally been straightened so it’s level, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.” Some of the headstones had been broken and laying on the ground for years before MCC was able to repair them. Many carry symbols of fraternal organizations the buried individual belonged to in life. “That’s a Mason symbol,” Eddins points out on one marker. “This is the House of Ruth, which was a women’s organization. The three-link chain is the Order of the Odd Fellows.” Other symbols date back further. [sidebar] Other UWF entities are getting involved in other preservation efforts. — The Florida Public Archaeology Network is working on a website devoted to the “By These Hands” project. — The University Archives is digitizing their collection of the Jim Crow-era newspaper, the Colored Citizen, available as part of an online collection that will also include scrapbook clippings and other materials provided by locals. — UWF graduate students will perform 3D scanning and chemical analysis to learn more about the individuals buried there and the artisans who made the vernacular markers. — In September, UWF and John the Baptist Church will host a weekend workshop that will include a keynote lecture by Dr. Dennis Montagna, an architectural historian with the National Park Service. That will coincide with a meeting of the Humanities Council that will take place in Pensacola. [/sidebar] The presence of a large seashell typically means that the buried individual was from African, Native American or Cajun descent, Eddins says. The two dancing ladies on Mrs. Stewart’s headstone are representations of a duality motif that can be traced to Africa and was passed down through generations of slavery. The desire to document these symbols led to a new endeavor, called “By These Hands: Vernacular Markers of Pensacola’s Historic African American Cemeteries.” The project is a partnership between UWF and John the Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in Pensacola, which maintains a cemetery on Cross Street and Eighth Avenue. “There’s a lot of history in that small cemetery,” said Rev. Carlton Abney of John the Baptist Church. “We estimated 24 graves (in the cemetery), but Margo believes there are more that just don’t have markers.” According to church historian Georgia Smith, the cemetery property was a “puzzle.” “I wondered how we ever got that cemetery,” she said. The relatively large distance from the church’s property in the Hawkshaw area made it an unlikely burial site for John the Baptist’s parishioners. “Somebody found the deed, and it turns out it was purchased by one of the members at the same time we got our church in 1870.” The church's commitment to preservation impressed the Florida Humanities Council enough to award John the Baptist Church a $15,000 grant for the “By These Hands” project. Those funds will be used for interpretive materials, including a kiosk and bench with educational information. “When people see the kiosks and when we mark the graves, more people can recognize it as a cemetery and have more respect when they walk through it,” said Abney.