It was almost as if a miracle had struck the abandoned historic Black Cemetery in Groveland, just west of Orlando.
After the state denied the city’s request for $499,000 to restore a cemetery where 70 souls would be buried, Groveland unexpectedly learned a few weeks ago that the funds were suddenly available. A surprise $30 million was poured into the grant pool for African-American projects around Florida that lawmakers added at the last minute to the final budget.
“We’re so excited about this,” said Kevin Carroll, Groveland Fire Chief and leader of the cemetery restoration effort. “We all want to restore respect, dignity, honor to these people.”
He added: “They think at some point over the years it was vandalized because you have to remember the town of Groveland doesn’t have the best history when it comes to race relations. Groveland is certainly not like that today.
The Lake County town of about 18,500 is home to the infamous case known as the ‘Groveland Four’, in which four young black men – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused and convicted of raping a 17-year-old white woman in 1949.
Thomas escaped and was killed after a manhunt by a white mob. The others were convicted by an all-white jury. Greenlee, 16 at the time, received a life sentence; the other two were condemned to death. Before a new trial was held, the sheriff of Groveland shot Irvin and Shepherd – who were in police custody and handcuffed together – citing self-defense. Shephard died at the scene, while Irvin survived and his sentence was changed to life in prison.
Governor Ron DeSantis pardoned the Groveland Four posthumously in 2019.
The extra grant money came just days after bills to create a small team of state employees to recognize and catalog lost cemeteries in Florida died in the Legislature. The bills, which passed unanimously in three House committee hearings but never made it to the Senate, would have adopted some recommendations from a task force that spent a year holding hearings. throughout the state and to search for abandoned cemeteries.
The Democratic sponsors of the cemetery legislation have vowed to reaffirm it in the next session.
Taylorville’s colorful Oak Tree Union Cemetery, also known as Old Groveland Cemetery, was established between 1895 and 1900, with the last interment in 1951. Since then it has been abandoned for over 70 years and is in disrepair state, Carroll said. .
To date, 14 tombstones have been discovered, of which only three are still standing.
“We’re convinced there are other headstones buried under all the vegetation and everything,” Carroll said. “Some areas are thicker than others. Some areas are a few inches (of vegetation). In some areas it can be a foot or more.
Archaeologists from the Florida Public Archeology Network examined the site in 2018 and believe the remaining headstones sank or broke, or possibly even moved from the burial site, the fire chief said.
“It was one of the worst cemeteries I’ve ever worked with and seen,” said Nigel Rudolph, who was part of the archaeological team that examined Oak Tree Cemetery and serves as a consultant for the maintenance of historic cemeteries. The tombstones were in disarray.
“The way they were knocked over and smashed seems very indicative of vandalism and less natural causes,” he said.
Carroll’s mission to save the cemetery was embraced by the community of 18,500. Local pastors, historians, archaeologists, descendants of the interred, and members of the city government all came together to try to save the cemetery. “The turnout was incredible,” Carroll said.
Rudolph said he hopes the restoration effort will help protect the cemetery from further destruction.
“If we start bringing more attention to it, the chances of it being vandalized again or continuing to be neglected will decrease significantly,” Rudolph said. “More eyes means more attention on the site and more protection for it.”
Carroll said it was difficult to track down funeral documents because local funeral homes have no records.
“Trying to be a detective, researching things over 100 years ago is not easy…and it’s very frustrating because, you know, we all want to do the right thing,” Carroll said. “That might mean we might just have to put a nice little marker or a headstone or something that just says ‘Unknown’.”
Carroll said that with the state grant, plans include installing a pavilion with an information kiosk, fencing and roads at the site, as well as repairing headstones and removing of some trees.
Carroll had applied for a $499,000 African-American Historical and Cultural Grant through the Florida Department of State in November. In February, he traveled to Tallahassee to speak on behalf of the project at the panel awarding $30 million in grants. Groveland’s request was denied.
“Of the 152 projects that were presented to the panel, this was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, but it was certainly the only project of all that was in imminent danger of being lost forever in the world. ‘story,” Carroll said. “The panel…didn’t seem to feel like us.”
Everything changed last month.
After lawmakers approved the state budget, Carroll learned that Groveland would receive the $499,000, after all, because the State Department received an additional $30 million for such projects.
“This state funding will help restore dignity and respect to our African-American neighbors buried there, many of whom were veterans,” said U.S. Representative Scott Franklin, R-Florida, whose congressional district includes Groveland. “Our community has always honored our history and this grant will help continue that tradition.
“It’s not an African-American project,” Carroll said. “This is not a white project. It is a human project. »
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. The journalist can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.