Penny Lambeth observes recently soaped and scrubbed grave markers
Penny Lambeth observes recently soaped and scrubbed grave markers
Victor Cruz

The Dead Are Grateful

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.

Despite all the attention, vandals continued to find the place a desirable target. In September 1996 mischief-makers defaced 57 gravestones. Dozens of grave markers were toppled, and many smaller tombstones were cracked in two. The cemetery had suffered many incidents of vandalism, but this attack drew more significant media coverage. Local television stations carried reports of the damage, and the Miami Herald and the Associated Press also covered it. Cemetery sextant Clyde Cates, who had complained to city administrators for years about neglect, found himself in the limelight. The sextant scared up some pretty good horror stories, including a claim that burial records were incomplete and inaccurate. When columnist Howard Kleinberg reported the problem in the Herald in 1996, "that finally hit a nerve with Miami-of-means, yuppie Miami," Paul George says. Soon city administrators began repairs and heritage trust members offered help. Penny Lambeth, then-trust vice president, founded another committee, the Miami Cemetery Task Force. Lambeth's goal was to transform the site into a garden suitable for self-guided tours. "I saw it becoming the most beautiful place in Miami," she opines, "another botanical garden like Fairchild, where all the trees are labeled, and tourists and residents can come to enjoy the history."

Lambeth had her work cut out for her. A small shantytown of twenty to thirty homeless people had set up camp on cemetery's southern border. Attracted by the ready supply of water from numerous faucets at the site, the transients took to using the wall along the Jewish section as a makeshift toilet. And on morning strolls, one could find clothing left out to dry atop the graves of members of the pioneering Sewell family. Although the homeless village was wiped out in 1997 after Lambeth called police, even today a ream of suspiciously unrolled toilet paper wafts in the wind beneath a royal poinciana.

What else has happened recently at the cemetery? Besides the new fence and lights, which will be paid for with nearly $150,000 in state and federal funds, a do-gooding Eagle Scout named Robert Ringeman spent an early December day and significant elbow grease scrubbing 500 veterans' tombstones with a toothbrush and Joy soap. Ringeman and several other volunteers also installed cement bird feeders, key-operated faucet bibs to discourage transient bathers, and painted markers so mourners could more easily locate their loved ones. Michael Mitchell, an emergency worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital, has repaired almost 50 headstones. The city has done its part, too; several businesses neighboring the cemetery have been issued citations for not cleaning up their trash. Cates is not satisfied: "Where [administrators] won't respond to me, they'll respond to [volunteers] because they're outside the city structure; that's what the city needs to get moving: outside pressure."


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