Tears and Goosebumps at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day


Seven-year-old Story from Jacksonville returned to St. Augustine for the second Restoration Day to restore headstones at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries. 

When people come together for a common cause greater than themselves a movement is made, and that is what has happened at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in St. Augustine, two of the oldest African American cemeteries in Florida. 

The second Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day was an emotional day for many of those, who had shown up to lend a helping hand. Goosebumps, kindred spirits and friendships being made all across the cemeteries, young and experienced, people from all walks of life, across religious and racial lines, all were at the cemeteries with one purpose, and it was to help bring dignity back to the cemeteries by preserving history.

Johnnie Williams' grave at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida
Johnnie Willams' grave at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida before being cleaned. 
Photo courtesy of Dewin Barnette


Johnnie Willams' grave at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida after being cleaned.
Johnnie Willams' grave at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida after being cleaned.
Photo courtesy of Dewin Barnette

People from all over St. Johns County and the Jacksonville area joined together at the cemeteries. Anger, joy, sadness, smiles and teary eyes could be found everywhere you looked, as each participant took great care in restoring headstones, uncovering hidden graves, removing invasive vines and weeds, all while wondering about the person resting in the very spot, where they were cleaning.

Tom Marsh and Mike Preissler at the Pinehurst Cemetery.

Mike Preissler arrived early with tools in hand eager to get started, and it did not take long before he found a spot to begin cleaning. "It gives me goosebumps," he said looking around the cemeteries at all of the people cleaning up. "Preserving history is important."

Tom and Lisa Marsh had come with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to help clean up the cemeteries. "We need to have more opportunities like this," said Lisa Marsh. "St. Augustine is such a gem, and I feel like we need to come together, especially in strange times as we are in now, and work together to make this city beautiful and to remember these people, who served in the military or who didn't make it past ten years old ... it is a great family history opportunity for people to come out and look at these graves and to collect names." 

Tom Marsh agreed. "It was really heartwarming to pull in and see as many vehicles as we did this morning." 

Tom Clark from the Arc of St. Johns at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day in St. Augustine, Florida.
Tom Clark from the Arc of the St. Johns.


Tom Clark from the Arc of the St. Johns had brought lots of tools to help with the cemetery clean up. "I'm just here to help, we like to help people, who can't help themselves. Clark looked around the cemeteries. "It is awesome to see, I did not expect to see half these people. I thought it would be just me."


Aniyah Pendleton and Brady Reading at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Restoration Day in St. Augustine Florida
Aniyah Pendleton and Brady Reading at the Kelp/Davis family grave site.

"I'm angry and a little infuriated," said Aniyah Pendleton, looking at the graves she had just helped uncover with missing or part missing name plates, some of these sunken into the ground.

Brady Reading was upset as well with the state of the cemetery and the clear vandalism and neglect that had taken place over the years. "I didn't really know what we were doing until we got here," said Reading. "I just knew we were cleaning up a cemetery. I'm passionate about this, and we will be back to make sure that these stay clean."

Missing name plates at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in St. Augustine Florida


Michelle Reading had initially learned about the cemetery clean up and shared it with Pendleton and her son Brady Reading. "We are here as a family doing some good today," she said. "I feel really grateful that these people are being honored. It is long overdue. I am grateful that it is happening, and that I can be a part of it."



Missing name plates at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries in St. Augustine Florida



Kelsey Kolisnyk and Alice Boher at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
Kelsey Kolisnyk and Alice Boher

St. Augustine locals and members of the West Augustine Nature Society Kelsey Kolisnyk and Alice Boher were eager to be a part of this West Augustine community project, and they showed up early to get started. 

The students from the West Augustine Nature Society were especially excited to help out the West Augustine Improvement Association, an organization that always looks to help out in the community.

Ahmerrius Spikes and Emmett Rodney and Kaleigha Spikes from the West Augustine Nature Society at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
Ahmerrius Spikes, Emmett Rodney and Kaleigha Spikes from the West Augustine Nature Society.


Ethan Goedelman from St. Augustine High School at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
NHS member Ethan Goedelman from St. Augustine High School clearing vines at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day

Many members of the National Honor Society at St. Augustine High School came out to support this community project. Ethan Goedelman cleaned vines and weeds with great enthusiasm, and there was not much stopping him at the cemetery clean up. "I came out today, mostly because I love the environment. I am a boy scout, and we do a lot of conservation projects around St. Augustine, and this is a project that the National Honor Society at my school put out."

Emma Stamm and Kaitlyn Touzet NHS St. Augustine High School with Isabella Rodney at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day
SAHS juniors and NHS members Emma Stamm and Kaitlyn Touzet with Isabella at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries Restoration Day

St. Augustine High School juniors and National Honor Society members Emma Stamm and Kaitlyn Touzet worked hard all day and took Isabella from the West Augustine Nature Society under their wings, as they cleaned headstones throughout the cemeteries. "I came out to help and honor the people, who have passed," said Touzet.

Stamm concurred. "It makes me feel really amazing and happy to see people in my community coming out and taking their personal time to come out and doing something so great to remember others that have passed and led such great lives. I just think it is great that we come together as one in the community and work together to do such an amazing community service project."


Kim and Mike Jenkins with Suzanne Curtis from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Kim and Mike Jenkins with Suzanne Curtis from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

"We came back this time to continue to restore these cemeteries," said Kim Jenkins. Together with her husband Mike Jenkins and her friend Suzanne Curtis they had returned for a second clean up. Their church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was part of organizing the first Restoration Day at the cemeteries last fall, and they have been instrumental in encouraging the West Augustine Improvement Association in their efforts to restore the cemeteries. 

"I've seen the progress from the first time to see what needed to be done and now with this second clean up, I am really seeing the difference that has been made, and it is really exciting," said Suzanne Curtis. 

Flowers donated by Ace Hardware Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
Flowers donated by Ace Hardware Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Ace Hardware in Jacksonville Beach donated flowering plants and supplies to the cemetery clean up.

After the clean up, the West Augustine Improvement Association invited all of the clean up participation to join them for BBQ made by Mr. Lyons at the St. Luke AME Church across from the the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries.


Unfortunately, a sad discovery was made at the clean-up event as the grave of writer Artemesia Holloway Jones, previously featured here, no longer has its name plate. Since the first Restoration Day in October, the nameplate has broken fully apart, and the only way to make the identification is to put pieces of the puzzle together.



grave of writer Artemesia Holloway Jones


As a part of the restoration of the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries, the West Augustine Improvement Association hopes to find funding to provide new headstones for those graves in danger of being lost and those already gone.


Ramona Fisher from the West Augustine Improvement Association with long-time member and former secretary of the organization Jean Sermons.
Ramona Fisher from the West Augustine Improvement Association with long-time member and former secretary of the organization Jean Sermons. 



Restoration Day at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries is becoming a West Augustine tradition for many people in Northeast Florida. The West Augustine Improvement Association acquired the cemetery grounds in recent years, but the historic cemeteries are more than just West Augustine history, they are St. Augustine history, Florida history and American history, and the organization is grateful for the support they are receiving from the community. 

Controversy over ownership had left the cemeteries exposed to neglect and vandalism over the years, and the Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries have changed hands many times since being established.

When the Pinehurst Cemetery Association dissipated decades ago, it was left up to various volunteer organizations to do the upkeep, but without ownership and without any funds available the organizations were not able to do much. One of those organizations was the West Augustine Improvement Association, which was founded in 1956 by community activist and educator Mrs. Nellie Meade. 

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


How To Help

If you would like to become a member of the West Augustine Improvement Association, 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 president Willie Cooper, Sr. at westaugimprovementassoc@gmail.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 new 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 such as clippers and loppers, 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, 
850 S St. Johns 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 westaugimprovementassoc@gmail.com . 





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 Accord Civil Rights Museum 

79 Bridge Street, 

St. Augustine, FL 

(Open by appointment only, call 904-347-1382 to make a reservation)

For more information check out the Accord Civil Rights 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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