MIAMI — Ninety-five year-old Dorothy Graham proudly wheeled her walker to the podium to lead a call and response prayer for a crowd of almost 200 people gathered Tuesday to celebrate the official recognition of a once-forgotten piece of Miami’s black history.
People from all walks of life converged on the lawns of Village Carver, 485 NW 71st St., for the dedication of a memorial garden and unveiling of a bright yellow memorial inscribed with the names of 523 black Miami pioneers buried in the historic Lemon City Cemetery.
Relatives, politicians, activists and residents were treated to a program that included music from a brass procession band, hymns and songs, personal reflections from and recognition of pioneers’ relatives and a lively appearance by the Bahamian Junkanoo band.
“I worked hard for this day and so I’m enjoying it,” said Graham, who has relatives in the cemetery. She is a member of the African American Committee of the Dade Heritage Trust which worked on the preservation effort.
Graham’s sentiment was echoed by her colleagues Enid Pinkney and Maud Newbold, who both hold positions in the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation.
“Words are not sufficient to express the exuberance, happiness and joy that we have been able to accomplish something that preserves [black] history. We need to be respected and this monument gives respect to the history of our people,” Pinkney said.
“My heart is full of love, joy and respect that our loved ones are resting in peace,” Newbold added.
Lemon City Cemetery was the final resting place for some of Miami’s pioneer black families. They include one World War I veteran, one of the men who signed the charter to incorporate the city of Miami and many Bahamian, Jamaican and other immigrants who planted roots and called Miami home.
Carmen Draughn’s family was among those immigrants. She drove from Hollywood to represent her family after being informed by a friend that two of her 84-year-old mother Gloria Hepburn’s brothers are buried in the cemetery.
“My mother had two brothers that died in infancy named the Dorsett boys and our friend Elasida told us they were buried here. I am so overwhelmed and grateful to see a portion of our history preserved. I can’t thank Elsaida enough for keeping us informed,” Draughn said.
The cemetery passed into obscurity over the years and was 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 project.
Convinced that the bones belonged to black people in unmarked graves, a resident called Pinkney, who heads the Historic Hampton House Community Trust to ask for help in preserving the site.
After months of research, a lead from 101-year-old Teresita DeVeaux and some help from genealogist Larry Wiggins, Pinkney and her team came up with 523 names of people buried in the cemetery, evidence that was instrumental in the site receiving historical designation on Nov. 3, 2009.
Carlisle and Biscayne Housing kept a promise and spent more than $1 million to create a monument and garden that ensure those 523 black settlers who were laid to rest a century ago will never be lost in history again.
“I think this turned out beautifully and we want to make sure the memorial will be here forever. The Lemon City Corporation has a partner for life in Carlisle and we are committed to helping with anything they need,” said Oscar Sol, a vice-president at Carlisle.