A Victory for the West Side at the Pinehurst & San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day

San Sebastian and Pinehurst Cemeteries Restoration Day 2021

Walking through the San Sebastian and Pinehurst Cemeteries today brought chills, a feeling of awe and a sense that the community had truly come out to show their respects to the people buried at the cemeteries. 

Everywhere you looked, there were people cleaning, weeding, and connecting all for the same cause of taking care of those, who came before us. People of all ages came out, from different churches and community groups, families and individuals, everyone eager to help, eager to make a difference and to show the West Augustine Improvement Association that they are not alone. 

Aaron Kendrick cutting up a tree at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine Florida
Aaron Kendrick cutting up a fallen tree.


"This is a victory for the west side," said Mae Victory, the sister of Willie Cooper, Sr., who is the president of the West Augustine Improvement Association. "I feel like finally our history is being revealed. I feel like this should be done more often, and everyone, I don't care what race you are, color or creed, should participate and help each other to bring history back to life." 


Dana Jones, Ramona Fisher, Mae Victory and Art Butler at the San Sebastian Cemetery
Dana Jones, Ramona Fisher and Mae Victory signing up Art Butler for the West Augustine Improvement Association.

Arthur Butler, a local missionary, conflict resolution expert and creator of Trilemma Solutions, echoed Victory's sentiments. "This is what we call a miracle."

Diane Woinski and her husband Bill gravitated toward one area in the cemetery, when they first started cleaning up, not knowing that this was the family graves of Petronilla and Vondalyn Clark, which they had read about prior to attending the event. (Read Petronilla and Vondalyn Clark's story at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries here) 

The Woinskis took great care in cleaning the Chavis/Clark family burial site, and as the weeds vanished, you could see the artificial flowers and the personal touches, which the Clark sisters had left at their family's grave site. After the headstones were cleaned, Vondalyn Clark's information became more legible, while most of the other headstones had lost their information permanently. 

Diane Woinski and husband cleaning out Petronilla and Vondalyn Clark's graves
Diane and Bill Woinski


The Smith family had made the journey down from Jacksonville, and they started early and finished strong, barely taking a break. "We wanted to come and give back as a family and help out," said Brittany Smith, who had read about the event online.

Brittany and Brian Smith with their children Jordan, Mya and Olivia from Jacksonville, Florida
Brittany and Brian Smith with their children Jordan, Mya and Olivia from Jacksonville, Florida

Below you can see how Brian and Brittany Smith with their children Jordan, Mya and Olivia pulled until the vines came down, and they got help from Geoff Magnani from the St. Augustine Shores ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.


Vivian Smiley, a senior at St. Augustine High School came out to help take care of the cemeteries after receiving an email from her high school counselor about the volunteer opportunity. "I wanted to come out and help restore our community and these grave sites that haven't been seen, or touched, or appreciated in years and allow the rest of our community to see them and appreciate them."

Dana Jones from Unity cleaning a headstone at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
Dana Jones from Unity cleaning a headstone.

Dana Jones, Vice President of  Unity of St. Augustine was busy cleaning headstones. Her organization works hard to help in the West Augustine community by empowering the youth and young adults, and today she inspired by modeling hard work. "This is an awesome experience. I'm very excited to come out and assist and be a part of this event, and it is awesome that people from everywhere have come out to support our community and get it going in the right direction."


RESET St. Augustine with John Augustus from Unity
RESET St. Augustine founders Alyssa Kelley and Quinterrance Cooper with John Augustus from Unity

"We're just glad to be here and help out the community in every way that we can," said Alyssa Kelley from RESET ST. Augustine, and the RESET team worked hard from helping out at the cemetery to serving lunch and cleaning up.

Lincolnville Museum volunteer Dewin Barnette with her daughter Story
Lincolnville Museum volunteer Dewin Barnette with her daughter Story

Dewin Barnette, a volunteer at the Lincolnville Museum, brought her daughter Story to the cemetery restoration, and they were busy cleaning headstones. Barnette started volunteering at the Lincolnville Museum in St. Augustine after having studied African-American history for a decade and feeling a need to do something more than just studying it. "I'm starting to get involved with West Augustine now that I know there is so much history over here, and I am happy to be a part of today," Barnette says. "It is amazing, this is way more people than I expected to be here, so this is just wonderful." 


Liz Scarbrough from Troop 9875 the Village Church St. Augustine, FL
Liz Scarbrough from Troop 9875 the Village Church St. Augustine, FL

"I'm glad to help," says Liz Scarbrough from Troop 9875 at the Village Church in St. Augustine, and she is interested in coming out to help with the maintenance of the cemeteries a couple of times a year. "I came out last Sunday and looked around, and it just broke my heart, because there are service men that we are not honoring for the different holidays, and we are just not honoring our people, who have had an impact on the community in the decades and the centuries before."

Evan Scarbrough, a Life Scout at BSA Troop 875 at the Village Church, echoed his mother's sentiment, and felt that it would be a great project for his scout troop. He and Aiden Evola, a Star Scout, were busy clearing out trees that had seeded themselves too close to gravesites. "I felt like we could help out the community and respect the history of the cemetery," says Scarbrough. 




Ahmerrius Spikes and Emmett Rodney from the West Augustine Nature Society
Ahmerrius Spikes and Emmett Rodney from the West Augustine Nature Society

Students from the West Augustine Nature Society were excited to come out to help the West Augustine Improvement Association clean up the cemeteries, and they were also eager to help the association sign up new members.

Isabella Rodney from the West Augustine Nature Society



"It is amazing to see all of the local community members and different organizations all pitching in, because this is definitely a cemetery that could use some love," says Emily Jane Murray, a public archeologist with the Florida Public Archology Network (FPAN). 

Emily Jane Murray, public archeologist with FPAN, hosts a headstone cleaning workshop
Emily Jane Murray hosting a headstone-cleaning workshop

Today she did workshops on how to clean a headstone, and she has worked with the West Augustine Improvement Association in the past to host community workshops. FPAN has also done a cemetery recording project, where they recorded all of the headstones in San Sebastian, and they are currently working on getting this information released to the public. 


Kim and Mike Jenkins in charge of the Pinehurst mapping project
Kim and Mike Jenkins from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Kim and Mike Jenkins from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were in charge of organizing the Pinehurst Cemetery mapping project. "There are no record of who is buried here in the Pinehurst Cemetery, so by mapping it, we create a record," says Kim Jenkins. "There has also been a lot of sinkage, because of hurricanes and other things such as the water table changing, and we are losing some of the headstones, so we want to make sure that we have it recorded, before any more significant damage is done and we loose them all together." 


Blake Hicks Blaine Vorwaller and Blane Larkin mapping the Pinehurst cemetery in St. Augustine
Blake Hicks  Blaine Vorwaller and Blane Larkin mapping the Pinehurst cemetery in St. Augustine



Tess Rose and Bianca Dawson
Tess Rose and Bianca Dawson


Tess Rose had brought her friend Bianca Dawson from the Underwire Collective along to the cemetery clean up, and both were passionate about helping collect the data needed for the Pinehurst Cemetery mapping project.
 
Tess Rose mapped the headstone of Private First Class George Murphy, a World War II veteran, a headstone which was almost hidden under a fallen tree.  The inscription of a second headstone is believed to say Mr. George and Mrs. Laura, but the text was almost illegible. 

Tess Rose mapping a grave at the Pinehurst Cemetery



Willie Leon Cooper, Jr., has spent much time at the cemetery cutting grass and clearing it with his father, and today he was in charge of removing the debris from the cemeteries. 

Willie Leon Cooper, Jr.
Willie Leon Cooper, Jr. spent most of the day clearing away debris with a tractor. 

Cooper, Jr. hopes that the restoration event will be the beginning of more people coming in to help. "It was good to have a lot of participation today," says Cooper, Jr. "Everybody came together, and it works numbers, when you have numbers. Me and my dad, we couldn't keep it up, and this right here is going to give us a great push."

The Coopers serving BBQ at Luke AME Church in West Augustine for the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
Mrs. Evelyn Cooper (in red) with her sister-in-laws Rhoda Kearse, Pauline Garden and Mae Victory.

After the clean up, the Coopers and their family served BBQ at the St. Luke AME Church across from the the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries.

The BBQ was made by Mr. Lyons, and everyone sat around in the shade to rest after the hard work.

Ben & Jerry's St. Augustine serving free ice cream to the volunteers at the cemetery restoration da
Frank Carifi and Jaycob Jackson from Ben & Jerry's St. Augustine serving free ice cream to the volunteers at the cemetery restoration day.

Ben & Jerry's St. Augustine also came out to serve ice cream to the volunteers, a cool reward that was much appreciated by all. 


 

Willie Cooper, Sr. Lisa Lewis, Kim Jenkins, Angie Clark and Thomas Jackson
Willie Cooper, Sr. and Thomas Jackson from the West Augustine Improvement Association with Lisa Lewis, Kim Jenkins and Angie Clark from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The Pinehurst and San Sebastian Restoration Day event was a joint effort between Willie Cooper, Sr. and Thomas Jackson from the West Augustine Improvement Association and Lisa Lewis, Kim Jenkins as well as Angie Clark from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"Our Church likes to pair with community groups to come in and help and give them a leg up to get them started, and then they can take over and carry on, and then we can go do that for another group," says Kim Jenkins. "We can bring in a lot of hands and make a significant difference, and then the groups can take it from there."   


Vice President Thomas Jackson and President Willie Cooper, Sr. from the West Augustine Improvement Association
Vice President Thomas Jackson and President Willie Cooper, Sr. from the West Augustine Improvement Association.

President Willie Cooper, Sr. and Vice President Thomas Jackson from the West Augustine Improvement Association are excited to see the changes from the clean up. 

"It is a great thing to have so many people, who are interested in helping us preserve the historic cemetery of San Sebastian and Pinehurst," says Jackson. "It won't be put to waste, and it is just a matter of us doing it continuously and making sure that the upkeep is done on a regular basis. This effort is a great effort to help us get it under control, and we want to thank everyone for coming out, we appreciate the help." 


Willie Cooper, Sr. agrees. "I would like to say thank you to all of the volunteers, who came out today. If you look at the work we got accomplished today, it would have taken us years to get to this point, so I really appreciate it, and we look forward to partnerships to move it forward and to maintain it like it is today."

The support for the West Augustine Improvement Association and their mission to restore the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries, two of the oldest African- American cemeteries in Florida, was inspiring, and the volunteers who showed up highlighted how it takes a community to make up for the decades of past neglect and to move these cemeteries forward with respect and dignity. 

Even with the enormous support on Restoration Day, it is clear that the task of maintaining these cemeteries is too grand for just one organization, and to prevent history from repeating itself, we must look within ourselves to see how we each as individuals, families, organizations, faith groups and businesses can help take care of those, who came before us. 

The neglect that has happened at the African-American cemeteries in St. Augustine is not isolated to our city or county, it is a nationwide problem, because all across the country cemeteries for people of color and indigenous people have been forgotten, neglected and in many cases disrespected by developers, who have built on top of grave sites.



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Ramona Fisher West Augustine Improvement Association
Ramona Fisher from the West Augustine Improvement Association

Ramona Fisher from the West Augustine Improvement Association was out recruiting new members for the association, which is open to members from anywhere, not just from West Augustine. 

If you would like to become a member, or if you would like to support the association's efforts to restore and maintain Florida's oldest African-American cemeteries in any way, please contact Willie Cooper, Sr. at Williecoopersr@yahoo.com. 

The West Augustine Improvement Association also meets every 3rd Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Collier-Blocker-Puryear Park (in the second pavilion) at 10 N Holmes Blvd, St. Augustine. 

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, 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 or help sponsor supplies and treats for clean-up 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. 



Read more about the history of the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries and about the efforts to restore it 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.



Please follow the West Augustine News Connection on FacebookInstagram and You Tube to help us spread the word about the work we do, so that we can help serve you better.



Comments

  1. Sina, you did an AMAZING job writing this up! Thank you so much for highlighting this very special event and letting the community know how they can continue to help. ❤

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Angie, our community is forever grateful to all of you at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for all of your help in organizing the event and working with the West Augustine Improvement Association.

      Delete
  2. Thank you, Sine, for doing such a great job capturing our awesome morning. It was so fun to meet and work aside so many from the community.

    ReplyDelete

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