Miami's Most Historic African-American Cemetery Is Neglected and Forgotten

At least the entrance has been cleaned up.
At least the entrance has been cleaned up.
Photo by Kyle Swenson

Randolph Williams, a stocky African-American accountant, stood outside the rusted gates of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery on an afternoon in 2001, mentally fishing around for memories from nearly five decades back. Try as he might, his past recollections couldn't sync with what he saw.

In front of him, the 20-acre Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Brownsville — perhaps Florida's most significant predominantly African-American graveyard — was a neglected mess. The rows of ceramic and stone coffins, above ground to protect against flooding, were all weather-stained or chipped like bad teeth. Unchecked weeds were swallowing whole sections of the park. Trash was everywhere. Graves apparently had been broken into.

But Williams safaried inside anyway. He was looking for his family's plot, but he couldn't orient himself. As a boy, he remembered installing, with an older brother, a two-foot-tall iron railing to mark where his mother and father were buried. "I had to dig through all these bushes just to find the railing so I could find Mama and Papa," says Williams, his gravelly voice creaking with frustration. "I couldn't believe that it had been neglected in such a major and international city. It's not the backwoods of Mississippi or Alabama, where you might expect that."

Williams was hitting against an uncomfortable truth about the region. Though Miami was created as a respite for Northerners and then became a refuge for Cubans and other Latin Americans, it has significant elements of the Deep South. And that includes an ugly past of Jim Crow segregation. Lincoln Memorial isn't just evidence of South Florida's racist past; it clearly displays how the county fails to properly tend to the memory of some of its most important citizens.

"The shame is that if you really want to look at some significant black history in Miami, that cemetery is one of the places that you need to begin at," says Miami historian Paul George. "And yet it's so hard to negotiate. What do you do when you get there?"

Lincoln Memorial's roots reach back to Dr. Kelsey Pharr. Born in North Carolina, educated as an embalmer in Boston, Pharr arrived in South Florida in the early 1900s, He began by trying to work off student loans as a waiter in Miami's swank, whites-only hotels. At the time, Miami's black population tallied only around 2,200, according to By Eminent Domain: Race and Capital in the Building of an American South Florida by Nathan Daniel Beau Connelly. Those numbers supported one mortician. In 1914, when black Miami's go-to undertaker died, Pharr pooled money together with three other black waiters, launching a business ministering to the families of dead black Miamians.

Using business savvy and well-placed loans (including one from Roddy Burdine, founder of the iconic South Florida department store), Pharr built a two-pronged business empire — real estate and funeral homes. In 1937, he purchased the land on NW 46th Street and 31st Avenue. He dubbed it Lincoln Memorial, probably for the 16th president.

The location quickly caught on. Maybe that was because it was a few miles north of the bustle of Overtown. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that it was just a quiet, idyllic place at the time.

"The vaults are emblematic that most of these burials are black Bahamians," explains George. "The vaults are practical as well as cultural in the Bahamas. The water table is high, so you can't bury your dead directly down in the water, so they buried them above. And they carried that tradition here."

Soon, some of early Miami's most notable black citizens were put to rest there. Dana Albert Dorsey was buried in 1940. The son of Georgia slaves, he built a real estate empire by constructing rental properties in Overtown. His portfolio eventually included land all over South Florida, including what would become Fisher Island. Dorsey is often considered Miami's first black millionaire.

Bahamian-born H.E.S. Reeves died and was put to rest in a plot in 1970. In 1923, he had founded the Miami Times, the city's first black newspaper, which often railed against segregation.

And Dr. William Sawyer, a protégé of W.E.B. Dubois, is buried there too. Miami's first prominent black doctor, he founded Christian Hospital and later served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia. He died in 1950. His daughter, Gwen Sawyer Cherry, was elected to the Florida house in 1970. She was the first African-American woman in the legislature. After her 1979 death in a Tallahassee car accident, she was also placed in Lincoln.

Randolph Williams' family was part of this cadre of prestigious black citizens. His father, Randolph, and mother, Caroline, were both from the Bahamas. They arrived in Miami in 1910. From the pulpit at Church of God of Prophecy in Overtown, Randolph Sr. built a sizable congregation. Along with his brother, J.D., Randolph Sr. also began saving money and buying real estate in Brownsville — the area north of present-day State Road 112 and west of NW 20th Avenue where Miami's growing black population began emigrating after World War II.

"We were not a rich family, but we were a solid family and a respected family," Williams says. "That why I don't like going out there to see Mama and Papa sitting in that junk."

Williams' father preached education and hard work to his children. Of the family's ten kids, nine went to college. But alert to the racism soaking the deep-fried South, the clan eventually bought property in Boston, where Williams and his older siblings later went to live.

But the family's youngest son was back home in Miami with his father in 1950 when the elder Williams fell ill one night. The doctor who arrived at the house told the family Williams' father had to get to the hospital immediately. But that wasn't so easy in segregated Miami.

"We had to wait for the black ambulance to come," Williams recalls today. "We couldn't just call an ambulance; it had to be the black ambulance, which meant we had to wait an hour for one to be available."

He continues: "Because of Jim Crow, we had to drive past other hospitals to take him to the only hospital that was open to African-Americans, South Dade Hospital in Kendall."

Concrete coffins, chipped like bad teeth.
Concrete coffins, chipped like bad teeth.
Photo by Kyle Swenson

Segregation's roadblocks and red tape had deadly effect: Williams' father slipped into what was later determined to be a diabetic coma. He died within 24 hours. Williams' mother died back in Boston scant months later. He was 13 years old.

"There was no other place where Mama and Papa were going to be put," Williams says, referring to Lincoln Memorial, where the family had already purchased a plot. "At that time, we were thinking we'd all be buried right there on our plot. The cemetery had a monopoly on who's who among the black dead."

With both his parents resting in Lincoln Memorial, Williams returned to Boston, where he was raised by older siblings. Later, he attended Florida Atlantic University, where he eventually earned an MBA. Then it was off to the University of Illinois for his PhD in accounting and financing. Williams, his wife, and their son spent years in Illinois, where he taught at his alma mater before returning to South Florida to be close to family. They settled in Boca Raton. Then Williams returned to Lincoln. By then, his older brother and sister were also buried there.

"It was as wild as the Congo in there," Williams says.

As Williams began digging into the recent history of the cemetery, he learned that Lincoln Memorial's woes went beyond simple upkeep. In 2012, the Palm Beach Post reported that a family visiting relatives at the cemetery discovered seven graves smashed open, with bones strewn around the ground. One violated casket revealed the body of a child — with the skull missing. Elyn Johnson, the cemetery owner, told the newspaper she believed bones were stolen for Santeria worship.

Williams says he reached out directly to Johnson to discuss the upkeep of the cemetery. The woman, who'd inherited the business from Dr. Pharr in the 1950s, claimed she had no money to do anything substantial with the property, Williams says.

Indeed, county records indicate that Johnson's financial status has progressively worsened over the years. Multiple liens were filed by the county on storm-water fees on two residential properties — one in Opa-locka, another in Golden Glades. Both properties landed in foreclosure.

In March 2014, Johnson filed for bankruptcy. But court records indicate the filing never went through because the fees weren't paid. Interestingly, Lincoln Memorial is not listed under Johnson's assets, even though she is listed as owner in county property records.

According to Jessica Williams, Johnson's niece, who holds her power of attorney, the owner — who is suffering from Alzheimer's — doesn't have the means for upkeep. "My auntie didn't have no more funds, and she didn't have anyone to hire, so she couldn't get it cleaned up," says Williams. Since 2010, various volunteers, including Boy Scout troops, have helped Johnson with clearing the way. But the cemetery hasn't been able to afford substantial, regular clean-up. She would like to see the county help on a regular basis.

"I don't want them to take it," she says. "It must stay in the family. My mom worked there. My sister worked there. My auntie's grandparents [the Pharrs] gave it to her." She's emphatic. "There are a lot of people that took this into politics."

Williams says he also had trouble trying to getting members of the Brownsville community cranked up over the conditions. "Everybody I talked to is pissed, but they're tired or numb," he says.

In March 2015, 78-year-old Williams, acting as his own attorney, sued Johnson and Miami-Dade County. In the filing, Williams charged that although Johnson is indigent, Florida law requires "cemetery operators to have a minimal net worth of $50,000... Failure to meet said threshold... requires that Dade County close the cemetery."

Williams charged that the county had failed to aggressively address the property's code violations "as they would if the property were located on Brickell Avenue." This meant putting a "lien on the land and sell[ing] the property at public auction if the expenditure were remitted to Miami-Dade government.

"The Miami-Dade government has done absolutely nothing to correct or improve this cemetery," Williams signed off in his suit. "It is a festering sore and a living monument to Jim Crow law enforcement."

Williams' lawsuit ground on through the spring. Finally, before any serious legal arguments were aired, the county relented — somewhat — in May. District 3 County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson facilitated an agreement whereby the county would clean up the cemetery. The service, provided by prisoners with the County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, began in June and is scheduled to stop by the end of August.

"It's a one-time deal," says Edmonson's press liaison, Marta Martinez-Aleman. (Edmonson was on vacation when contacted for this story.)

On a recent afternoon, the section of cemetery fronting NW 46th Street was trimmed and neat, although many concrete coffins were still shattered, and the entire property was still rimmed with the kind of sagging barbed-wire fence you'd see protecting a refugee camp. In the back street, the property was still completely overgrown, with candy wrappers, plastic bags, and other trash snagged everywhere in branches and grass. The gates were still locked.

For Williams, the clean-up is a Band-Aid on a terminal problem. When the county's prisoners put away their shovels, Johnson still won't have money for ongoing upkeep. The county's relationship should be made permanent, he argues. Williams is currently circulating an online petition asking the county to maintain the area as a historical site.

Williams already has a website up and running, saveblackgraves.com. He's also bought a new domain name. "It's blackgravesmatter.com," he says.


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