The Dead Are Grateful

The Miami cemetery is like the city's diary. And after years of abuse, this book is getting a new cover.

The Dead Are Grateful
Photo by Victor Cruz
Penny Lambeth observes recently soaped and scrubbed grave markers
The Miami City Cemetery today is in transition. Located at 1800 NE Second Ave., the landmark covers ten and a half acres, and is the final destination for some 10,000 dearly departed South Floridians, many of whom were members of the area's pioneer families. The place is bordered to the north by a soccer field and to the south by warehouses and an abandoned car lot. Its rear entrance abuts Miami Avenue. There, graffiti scrawled in black spray paint on an off-white wall desecrates the dead. That's only one of the many indignities visited upon this, perhaps South Florida's most historic spot, during recent years. But that's about to change. A 3305-foot-long, 8-foot-high, steel fence is going up. It stretches nearly the length of the graveyard along the north perimeter. When completed it will include two twelve-foot-wide gates. The target date for completing the job is February 10.

The fence may imply that Miami is pointed in a new direction. The city has made a tradition of having no tradition. It is a place that has sacrificed memory to the pursuit of development and a tantalizingly affluent future. In fact the cemetery is in the midst of perhaps the most ambitious preservation effort in its 103-year history. Not only will the imposing fence be built, but lights also will be installed along its palm-lined promenade. Cracked headstones will be repaired, 123 recently planted trees will be maintained, and local Eagle Scouts will tidy up the rough edges.

Purchased in 1896 from the so-called mother of Miami, Julia Tuttle, for a mere $750, this memorial park is divided into three parts. The African-American section covers about 30 percent at its western extreme. A smaller, walled-in area nearby houses the remains of members of the city's founding Jewish families. Some of the oldest and most beautiful trees are lined up around the Jewish part, forming a canopy above those who emigrated from Key West following the boom created by Henry Flagler's railroad a century ago.

Tuttle, who convinced Flagler to extend his railroad onto her property and thereby helped create the City of Miami, is buried in the large area dedicated to Anglos. The crypt of the Burdine family, who began the prominent South Florida department store chain, is not far away from her. About 2000 war veterans are interred here, as are three American Indians, one of whom, John Tigertail, was murdered. A small statue of an Indian woman carrying a child marks his place, which is located among deceased Spanish-American War veterans. According to local historian Paul George, who has led tours of the cemetery for years, the killer's family, the Verbers, felt so bad they dropped the r from their name to become the Vebers.

On a recent tour (cost: $15 per person), George indicated the nuances of the site's black section even as he showcased the others' gravesites. Wearing pleated khaki shorts, a baseball cap, a T-shirt, and sneakers, the college professor pointed out the hand-carved inscriptions on the tombstones, testimony to the crushing poverty many blacks experienced as part of slavery's legacy. George mentioned the high volume of Bahamian Miamians, their surnames (Pinder and Davis and Gibson and Smith among them) linked to the history of British colonization. And he took time to show off the interim grave marker of A.C. Lightbourne, a black man who is reputed to have given an extremely eloquent speech advocating incorporation of the City of Miami more than 100 years ago. Fashioned by Clyde Cates, cemetery sextant, the Portuguese marble and coral marker will be in place until the Dade Heritage Trust can find a way to pay for a new one. In April 1996 the trust secured, through an anonymous donor, funds to pay for the tombstone of doo-wop great Bernard Arthurneal Mackey. The singer was one of the famed Ink Spots, a group that formed in the early Forties, and is buried among other blacks in the western part of the graveyard.

About ten years ago, Enid Pinkney, an African-American woman who currently is president of the trust, attended one of George's cemetery tours, and was unsatisfied with his coverage of the black section. Her complaint was the genesis of a movement that helped spark the recent cemetery facelift. "The only African-American man he talked about was [civil-rights activist and Miami city commissioner] Theodore Gibson. I knew there were other African Americans buried there who had made a contribution to the City of Miami," comments Pinkney, who then was an assistant principal at South Miami Middle School. She spent her spare time for the next three years culling cemetery records to identify the black interees. Although George maintains Pinkney's efforts uncovered no new findings, others were interested in her research.

In the early Nineties several people turned to Pinkney (who in May 1998 would become the trust's first black president) for facts related to the cemetery. When local historian Ann McFadden was working on a book about the site and needed information about the black section, she contacted Pinkney. Also in the early Nineties, when WLRN-TV (Channel 10) television technician John Schuster had the idea of gathering twenty to thirty living relatives of African Americans buried at the site to discuss the past, he sought out Pinkney. That was when the momentum to repair the cemetery really picked up, she says. In 1993 the preservationist decided to form a new committee within the trust: the African-American committee. Made up of the very group that appeared in Schuster's show, Resurrection: Stories of Black History from the Miami City Cemetery, the new assemblage set about promoting the African-American section of the site. "We said, 'We have a gem of history and we need to do something about that and celebrate it ... something more than what we are doing,'" says Pinkney. In April 1994, as part of the annual Dade Heritage Days celebration, a blaring New Orleans-style marching band visited the graveyard, much as similar groups had during funerals decades ago. Yearly lectures to commemorate the achievements of the blacks buried there were also planned.

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