A fight for the remains
To passersby, Lee Kirkland Cemetery in the Jacksonville Beach, Fla., area appeared to be little more than a vacant lot blanketed with overgrown brush and shrubs. But, when a street realignment project threatened the cemetery, residents called on city officials to help save the historic site, beautify it and memorialize burials for residents and visitors.
The cemetery dates back to the 1800s, when slaves were laid to rest on the grounds of a former plantation that stood at the site. It was the only cemetery where African-Americans could be buried in the city. The local government took over the site in 1936, and by the 1960s, Lee Kirkland, a city worker, began to care for the site himself because it had been poorly maintained. When Kirkland died, he was buried in the cemetery. But, without his regular care, the cemetery soon nearly disappeared under the brush.
Although the cemetery was thick with vegetation, residents cared for their own family members’ sites — some well-made military markers, others pieces of concrete with handmade etchings scrawled on the surface. Other sites were merely marked with plants as some families could not afford headstones.
In the following years, the site, once 15 to 20 acres, would occasionally be threatened as businesses and residential areas were constructed and infringed on the historic graves. When the city announced in 2003 that it would realign Penman Road, which ran along the north boundary of the cemetery, residents feared the remaining parcel of land would be overcome. “No, no. Not on my watch,” says Maxine Terrell, the former president of the Pablo Renewal in Duval East (PRIDE) neighborhood association.
After a careful assessment of the cemetery, Terrell discovered about 85 graves, one-third of which were unmarked. The cemetery’s oldest grave dates to 1926, while others from the 1940s are missing headstones, indicating, Terrell says, that the site had been larger. Terrell met with city leaders to determine if they could continue with the road project without disturbing the remaining piece of the cemetery, which had been reduced to one acre. “I knew we would not be successful in getting [the city] to stop the project,” Terrell says. “My objective was to get them to at least handle it tastefully and to recognize that this is a cemetery.”
Terrell worked with the state archeologist and the city, which used ground-penetrating radar to find graves that might be affected by the changes and ensured that the road project did not disturb them. Penman Road was completed in July, and although the roadway hugs a wall marking the boundary of the cemetery, the site was saved from further infringement. To preserve the cemetery, the city installed fresh sod and a new sprinkler system, and will continue to maintain the site. A Spanish-style gate also was installed, and the city plans to construct a gazebo that will serve as a memorial to those burials that Terrell says were “lost to progress in the city.” “We lost so much history,” she says.
Terrell is satisfied with the work that PRIDE has accomplished as well as the city’s contributions to preserve the remains of Lee Kirkland Cemetery. The overgrown brush has been removed to reveal a site that Terrell hopes will teach residents and visitors about a meaningful part of the city’s history. “I think it gives us a sense of accomplishment and a sense of at least being heard — the city did hear us — and that we were able to get this part [of the cemetery preserved] forever,” Terrell says. “It’s a place where, when people come to our community, we take them to visit part of our history, and now it’s a place that we can be proud of.”