Saving Two of Florida's Oldest African American Cemeteries in West Augustine



Two of Florida's oldest African American cemeteries in St. Augustine are in disarray and in need of funding for serious clean up, maintenance and restoration. The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries, located in West Augustine on Pearl Street, stand in stark contrast to the neighboring Evergreen Cemetery which is maintained with historic markers and well-kept grounds.

Once you enter the gates, The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries greet you with a sense of historic importance that makes a lasting impression. Century-old live oak trees shade the last resting place of so many people of color from our communities, the Spanish moss slightly dancing above from a breeze bringing in the spirit of the south, yet headstones hidden behind weeds and tree seedlings growing in between the graves are strong reminders for how the people of color in St. Augustine has often felt - overlooked, abused and forgotten. 

Most people drive by these cemeteries not even noticing them, unless they are on foot or on bike, and even then these historic cemeteries seem like nothing more than a mere afterthought, barely visible to the public. 

A wooden cross at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries in St. Augustine, Florida

Although the cemeteries are located outside of the city limit, it is a stain on St. Augustine's past, present and future that people of color are still treated as second-rate citizens even in death. We owe the people who came before us more dignity and respect, especially as the success of many others in this town were built on the backs of those buried there.

Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemetery oldest African American cemetery in Florida

Small signs on each side of the cemetery gates are the only evidence that there is even a cemetery located behind the fence. The cemetery closest to Pearl Street is the San Sebastian Cemetery, and the cemetery toward the back part of the property is the Pinehurst Cemetery. While unmarked graves make it difficult to determine exactly how old these cemeteries are, the oldest known grave dates back to 1879 according to the Florida Public Archeology Network (FPAN), but the cemeteries were officially established around 1884 "to be used for all colored denominations" according to the deeds.

Charles A. Tingley, Senior Research Librarian at the St. Augustine Historical Society explains that it is difficult to find records dating that far back, because "the State of Florida did not require death certificates until 1917 ... and it was only the Episcopalian Church that kept burial records." Tingley says that "The City of St. Augustine had a system of burial permits starting in 1878, but this was only within the city limits."

Before the San Sebastian cemetery was established, Tingley describes how many people of color were buried on plantations such as the Fairbanks plantation north of the city and at the Dupont Plantation on Fish Island, and both Huguenot and the Tolomato Cemeteries downtown were integrated. The Huguenot Cemetery was for non-Catholics, while the Tolomato Cemetery was for Catholics only. Additionally, "Black soldiers, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were often buried at the St. Augustine National Cemetery," says Tingley.

Many of the people buried here were born into slavery before being freed in the mid 1860s, and some headstones have a chain at the top to symbolize that the person had been born into slavery. A great amount of the headstones also bear witness to the sacrifice of the many men of color joining the military to protect their country.

Shade Denson from Georgia WW1 Veteran Headstone Grave at the Pinehurst Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida
The gravestone for Shade Denson, a World War 1 Veteran at the Pinehurst Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida.

While it could be assumed that the age of two of the oldest black cemeteries in Florida is the reason behind the neglect, the pristine Evergreen Cemetery, which borders the African-American cemeteries by only a fence, was established around the same time. A few streets over, Woodlawn Cemetery, the currently-used African American cemetery in town, is left in disarray without any historic markers or even a sign acknowledging its existence. To locals it is just known as the African-American cemetery. 


Controversy over ownership has left these cemeteries exposed to neglect and vandalism over the years. The Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries have changed hands many times since being established, but when the Pinehurst Cemetery Association dissipated decades ago, it was left up to various volunteer organizations to do the upkeep. Without ownership or any funds available these organizations were limited with what they could do. One of those organizations is the West Augustine Improvement Association, which has helped with the upkeep for the past 21 years. 

Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in St. Augustine Florida

The West Augustine Improvement Association intends to rectify some of the neglect, and in recent years the association, spearheaded by its president Willie Cooper and vice president Thomas Jackson, has acquired the grounds of The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries as well as some of the surrounding land.

The West Augustine Improvement Association currently has about 70 members, many of them older generations of West Augustine residents, who are working to find solutions for how to restore and maintain the cemetery grounds as well as begin to activate the remaining open areas of the cemeteries for more burial sites.

As for now, in order to be buried at the cemetery, you would have to have already purchased a plot before the cemeteries changed hands. Cooper and the West Augustine Improvement Association are working with the county to get the approvals to use the cemeteries for new burials, but as of now the association has hit a stalemate with the county. 

Without any income from new burials, the upkeep of the grounds are currently left up to Willie Cooper Sr. and his son Willie Cooper Jr., who cut the grass as best as they can in their spare time, but they need help with the time-consuming task of maintaining each burial site with the respect and dignity each of the sites deserve. 

Cooper's desire to take care of the African-American cemeteries is strong and deep-rooted, and when he begins to talk about some of the people buried there, you cannot help but feel the respect that he has for the individuals laid to rest at the cemeteries, the forefathers of so many in the West Augustine and Lincolnville communities in St. Augustine. 

Willie Cooper Sr at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in West Augustine Florida
Willie Cooper Sr. at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in West Augustine Florida

After a long day at work, Cooper does not think twice about stopping at the cemeteries to talk about the ancestors of so many in St. Augustine and across the country, and he soon gets down to the ground to start clearing a sunken-in headstone to find the name of the person resting below.

For Cooper there are two burial sites that especially stand out. The first one is the above of Mary E. Jordan, wife of Rev. S.A. Jordan, who died in 1895 at the age of 26. The headstone was erected by the students from the New Augustine Colored School. 

George Chavis Cemetery Plot at Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemetery in West Augustine, St. Augustine Florida

The second burial site, which Cooper will never forget is that of George Chavis and his family. "When we first came here, it was all overgrown. But there was a path from the gate over to this location right here. It was always clean. There were two old ladies from over town (Lincolnville), they were coming here, and this was the only clean spot in the whole cemetery." Cooper explains that he heard from someone else about how the women were coming to visit their parents. 

The grandfather's name is etched into the headstone, while the grandmother's name has vanished completely and the remaining names are hard to see. Cooper has not seen the women in years, so he concludes that the women must have passed.

George Chavis Cemetery Plot at Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemetery in West Augustine, St. Augustine Florida
George Chavis and his wife's cemetery plot at Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in West Augustine, St. Augustine Florida

Based on research from the Howard Strickland San Sebastian Cemetery research collection at the St. Augustine Historical Society's research library, the original inscription said "George W. Chavis. Grandfather" and "Margaret B. Chavis. Grandmother." George Chavis worked as an assistant gardener at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, and the couple lived at 20 Williams Street, where they raised four children. Also buried at the plot in the San Sebastian Cemetery are their daughter Pearl Chavis Clark and her husband Theodore E (Red) Clark from 145 Blanco Street.

Additional research revealed obituaries from the St. Augustine Record for Pearl and Theodore's daughters Petronilla Clark Archer and Vondalyn Clark, who passed away in 2011 just four months apart at the ages of 82 and 77. 

Only a brother, Arthur Clark from Virginia Beach, VA is listed as a survivor. According to Family Search, both sisters are buried at the San Sebastian cemetery, where they spent so many years tending to their parents' and grandparents' graves despite the overgrown weeds. 

Petronilla Clark Archer and Vendalyn Clark's graves
Petronilla Clark Archer and Vondalyn Clark's graves next to their parents and grandparents at
the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida


Returning to the cemetery revealed two graves next to the rest of the Chavis/Clark family, which were undecipherable. The inscriptions are barely visible despite both women being buried just a decade ago, and if it had not been for the additional research, these two graves would soon have lost their identifying markers just as so many other graves in the cemeteries. (Find more details from the Chavis and Clark families search on the San Sebastian Cemeteries Research page here.) 

The vision of the West Augustine Improvement Association is to get funding to hire a recently released inmate from the community, who has difficulties finding a job in the hopes that the job would be able to provide experience and references, so that the person could move on from there. Until the association is able to start getting money coming in by providing active burial sites, they are not able to fulfil this part of their vision, and the upkeep will have to stay at a minimum.

A hidden grave stone at The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries in St. Augustine, Florida
A grave stone is almost hidden by a fallen tree at The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries in St. Augustine, Florida 




This is why Cooper is excited that Lisa Lewis and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recently contacted him about helping to restore the cemeteries. 

On October 9th, a special Restoration Day will be held at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries, and volunteers from the community are invited to come out to help. 

There will be vegetation clean up, and the headstones will be cleaned up with a D2 solution. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints owns one of the largest free genealogy research companies called Family Search, and at the Restoration Day they will educate volunteers about some of the history behind the cemeteries including focusing on the FPAN mapping project in Pinehurst.


Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day in West Augustine Florida


If we are to learn from history, keeping up the maintenance of the cemeteries demands more than just volunteers, as it is a daunting task that needs at least a part-time maintenance man. 

Cooper and the members of the West Augustine Improvement Association are not the ones, who usually ask for help, in fact these are members of the West Augustine community, who you will find donating their time to other causes and needs in the community. They are not looking for recognition, but after taking ownership of these historically significant cemeteries, it is clear that they need help.

The West Augustine Improvement Association is currently looking for volunteers to come out and help at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day, and Cooper expresses hope that there might be other organizations, clubs and faith groups in West Augustine and beyond, which may be able to donate their time one weekend or more a year to help bring dignity back to the cemeteries.


Sign up to participate in the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Restoration Day here or through Facebook at the event page for the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day.


If you would like to support the West Augustine Improvement Association in their efforts to restore and maintain Florida's oldest African-American cemeteries, you can donate directly to the West Augustine Improvement Association or contact Willie Cooper to see how you can help at Williecoopersr@yahoo.com. 

The West Augustine Improvement Association is now on Facebook, follow them for updates and mew cemetery clean-up events.


How to Help with the Restoration and Upkeep of the oldest African American Cemeteries in Florida:

In-kind Donations:

  • In-kind donations such as maintenance equipment, wheel-barrows, gardening tools, gazebos for clean-up events, nylon-bristle scrub brushes, soft brushes, D2 biological solutions spray, spray bottles, 2 or 3 gallon-sized garden pump sprayers and etc.

Donate Your Time:

  • Organizations, faith groups, clubs, schools and individuals can donate their time one weekend or more a year to help with the maintenance and upkeep.
  • Organizations, schools, clubs, churches or businesses can help host fundraising events.
  • A law firm and/or an accounting firm can donate their services and help the association move their mission forward as they try to work with the county.
  • Tree trimming companies can donate their time to help with tree maintenance and removal.
  • Help spread the word about the condition of Florida's oldest African-American cemeteries through word of mouth and share how to help.
  • Use your social media accounts to bring attention to the needs of the West Augustine Improvement Association and their efforts to save the Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries.
  • If you know of someone, who might be able to help either via donation of time, services or funding, reach out and help connect them with Willie Cooper Sr.
  • If you are a media organization consider featuring the The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries to help bring attention to the needs of these and so many other forgotten African-American cemeteries throughout the state and the country.

Become a Member:

  • Become a member of the West Augustine Improvement Association for a $10 annual membership fee. 

Donate Funds:

  • Send a check made out to the West Augustine Improvement Association and mail it to: 
The West Augustine Improvement Association, 
455 S Volusia St., 
St. Augustine, FL 32084

Or


If you have any questions related to the cemeteries, about making in-kind donations, of if you need a donation receipt, please contact Mr. Willie Cooper, Sr.  at Williecoopersr@yahoo.com. 



You can find more details from my research at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Research page here. 



Learn more about black history in St. Augustine and St. Johns County at:


The Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center 

102 M. L. King Avenue, 

St. Augustine, FL 32084

The Museum Hours Are: Tuesday - Saturday 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

For more information check out the Lincolnville Museum website.


The St. Augustine Historical Society & Research Library

6 Artillery Ln.

St. Augustine, FL 32084

Research Appointment can be made for Tuesday- Friday from 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. by calling 904-825-2333 ext. 2.

For more information check out the St. Augustine Historical Society website.


Florida Public Archeology Network (FPAN)

125 Markland Pl.

St. Augustine, FL 32084

For more information check out the Florida Public Archeology Network website.


FamilySearch

FamilySearch is a free, international non-profit organization dedicated to helping people discover information about their ancestors and their family history.

Visit the FamilySearch website to get started.



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