Crumbled Infrastructure: Moncrief Mt. Olive Graveyard

July 8, 2010 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Cemeteries are increasingly becoming a feature of the countries broken infrastructure. Often neglected to the point of ruin, some have become fodder for vandals and even dumping grounds. This is largely because graveyards were traditionally cared for by cemetery associations, and over the years, they have folded, churches have closed or moved and relatives of the buried have died, experts said.

The earliest grave marker the city has recorded dates back to 1808, according to the only existing comprehensive study of cemeteries.  This study, incidentally was created by Lucy Ames Edwards in 1950. Ms. Edwards, now long deceased herself, was a private citizen who logged the names of people buried between 1808 and 1916 from nearly 50 cemeteries. For reasons known only to herself, she did not include any African-American cemeteries.

''The vast majority of cemeteries are abandoned. No one is taking care of them,'' said McEachin, the city's historic preservation planner in a comment to the Times Union in a '92 article on the subject.  The city maintains six cemeteries, including a pauper cemetery where we bury many of the homeless.

Mount Olive, the somberly beautiful historic cemetery on Jacksonville's Northside is in shameful condition. Vaults have been cracked open, headstones are akimbo and crypts are exposed, Metro Jacksonville found in a recent photo tour.

Mount Olive had a more auspicious history.

The cemetery is

It was one of four graveyards that were once well-groomed resting places for wealthier African-Americans Jacksonvillians. They were owned by the Afro-American Insurance Company. The company was founded by A.L. Lewis, who was Jacksonville's first African-American millionaire, back at the turn of the last century. The first person was buried in Mount Olive in the late 1800s.

Over a hundred years later, the company went out of business, leaving the cemeteries abandoned in 1990.

Within two years, the Northside cemeteries were filled with mountains of trash, old furniture, snakes, scattered caskets and sunken graves in open 6-foot holes. In a Times Union story on the subject, Janie Madry said that "The sites were dangerous for anyone who came to visit"  Ms. Madry, headed a city cemetery steering committee in '97. Madry recalls finding trash all over her mother's grave in one of the cemeteries. ''Someone had dumped garbage all over Mama,'' said Madry.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that city policy assesses tax liens on unpaid property taxes for cemetaries.  Such is the case in many across the city, including Mount Olive and anyone who purchases the property would be required to pay the back taxes. Historic preservation grants are available through the state, but they are hard to get, McEachin said. No one is sure what the solution is. The city can't afford to take care of them all.

As already noted, the problem isn't limited to the Northside, there are 110 known cemeteries in Jacksonville. Those include single graves to private family plots to church graveyards to about 15 larger, still-active commercial graveyards. Most of those in disarray were private cemeteries started before the 1950s when burial laws were more lenient. All are at least 50 years old and contain from one to thousands of bodies. It is likely many more graveyards are yet to be discovered, said Joel McEachin. "The City of Jacksonville did agree, because of the importance of these four cemeteries, to clean them up, get them good and clean and continue to maintain them."

 In '92, after a three-year fight by City Councilwoman Denise Lee, the city took over maintenance of Mt. Olive and three other dilapidated, historically-segregated cemeteries in the Moncrief area: Memorial, Pinehurst and Sunset Memorial. However, the city does not own them.

The city maintains a Cemetery Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for the care of the four historic cemeteries. The current balance is $198,853. However, that money does not pay for the upkeep. The staff and supplies to mow and clean the cemeteries come from the Public Works Department's budget instead.

The city has no plans to cover the exposed caskets or place the vaults back into the ground.

Article by Stephen Dare
Photographs by Daniel Herbin