“The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!”
MIAMI – The words of this hymn became a slogan echoed repeatedly on Tuesday, when people from all walks of life gathered to celebrate the historic designation of the once-forgotten Lemon City Cemetery.
More than 200 people converged on the back lawn of the Hampshire and Graving Company building at 285 NW 71st Street, next to the cemetery, to honor the people buried there.
Dignitaries included Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn and Bahamian Consul General Gladys Johnson-Sands.
Located near Northwest 71st street and Northwest 3rd Avenue, the Lemon City Cemetery is the final resting place for some of Miami’s pioneer black families. Buried among its ranks are one World War I veteran, one of the men who signed the charter to create the City of Miami, and many Bahamian immigrants who planted roots and called Miami home.
“These are people who made Miami what it is today, and we stand on their shoulders,’’ said Enid Pinkney, chairperson of the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation, which led the charge to get the historic designation for the cemetery. The designation protects the cemetery from developers.
“They came here when Miami was only a palmetto bush,” Pinkney said. “With machetes, the strength of their back and the sweat of their brow, they made Miami beautiful.”
Regalado echoed Pinkney’s sentiments.
“There is no way that we can have progress if we do not respect history,” Regalado said. “I believe this is one of the most important things we have done in this administration, because it remembers those immigrants who were pioneers. I think they deserve it.”
A RECLAIMING OF HISTORY
Preservationists won a significant victory in November, when the city of Miami's historic preservation board designated the Lemon City cemetery a historic site.
Lorraine Clarke, an 80-year-old lifelong Lemon City resident who had some cousins buried in the cemetery, said no one had asked her about Lemon City before Pinkney and Maud Newbold, chairperson of Tuesday’s event, came to her house and interviewed her.
“I remember when Lemon City had nothing but a bunch of fruit trees. Across the street was the Lemon City Doctor’s Office, and we had our own post office. I feel very nice about today because I can give you the whole history on Lemon City. Someone should have asked me about this before,” Clarke said.
Her stance was supported by former state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who said she came out to witness an event that is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
“If the elders don’t write our story, our children will not know our story,’’ Bendross-Mindingall said. “Today is a day of astronomical proportions.”
Pinkney said she hoped Tuesday’s festivities would mark the beginning of the city’s efforts at making amends to Clarke and her peers.
“For years, we have trampled them and disrespected their contribution,” Pinkney said. “What happens is people move here, they disrespect the history, and they think Miami started with them. Today, we’re hoping this will give the rightful respect the Lemon City community deserves by sharing the history of what was here before as well as who was here before.”
A HISTORIC DISCOVERY
The Lemon City Cemetery was first re-discovered in April 2009, when workers from Carlisle Development and Biscayne Housing Group found human remains at a construction site for an affordable housing development.
Convinced that the bones belonged to black people in unmarked graves, a member of the community called the Historic Hampton House Community Trust Office to ask for help in preserving the site.
Construction was stopped, members of the community were activated, and, eventually, natives were embarking on a quest to prove that a cemetery highly significant to Miami’s black history actually existed there.
“We had to prove that there was a cemetery here because they didn’t believe that it actually existed,” Pinkney said.
Oscar Sol, senior vice president of development at Carlisle, said, “At first we had no idea. We’d gone to all kinds of hearings, done tons of surveys, and the building was already halfway up. There was no record anywhere in the city of Miami that said there was once a cemetery here.”
For the next few months, Pinkney and her team immersed themselves in research by scouring archives of books and news clippings. They surfed the Internet, and interviewed elderly residents who grew up in Lemon City. The evidence wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
A break came when 101-year-old Tereseta DeVeaux told a Miami Herald reporter that she had attended the funeral of Theophilus Clark, who was buried there. This led Larry Wiggins, a genealogist, to do some research.
Wiggins found Clark, and a total of 523 names of people said to be buried in the Lemon City Cemetery. He gave the information to Pinkney, providing the lead she needed.
“I’d like to thank Larry Wiggins for turning over his research to me, which he did for free, just to help. He didn’t have to do that,” Pinkney said.
Once evidence of the cemetery’s existence was presented to the city and the developers, the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation got its wish. On Nov. 3, 2009, the site received historical designation.
PARTIES COMBINE TO DO THE RIGHT THING
All parties involved had a vested interest in finding an amicable solution. A lot of money and years of history were at stake.
Eventually, Pinkney’s board, the YMCA of Greater Miami, Carlisle Development and the Biscayne Housing Group all came to an agreement. The developers redesigned their construction plans, and committed to turn the cemetery into a memorial garden. The developers also agreed to build a monument to the people buried at the cemetery.
“We needed to find a way to not only finish our important development, but to also honor and preserve the history of the community at the same time,” said Michael Cox, principal of Biscayne Housing Group.
“It was the right thing to do and that’s the simplest way to say it. After meeting with members of the community, it became clear the relevance of this historical site and it needed to be preserved,” Sol agreed.
“We figured out a way to honor the past but also serve the needs of the community today and in the future,” said Alfred Sanchez, president of the Greater Miami YMCA, which owns the cemetery land and the land under the affordable housing complex.
Newbold said she is happy with the results.
“This is not just a victory among African Americans and Bahamians, but it’s a victory for all of us; young and old; black and white; rich and poor,’’ Newbold said. “For all of us to come together and honor our loved ones is promoting the vision of unity.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Enid Pinkney