|City/Town: • Miami|
|Location Class: • Cemetery|
|Built: • 1923 | Abandoned: • N/A|
|Historic Designation: • African American Heritage Site|
|Status: • Under Renovation|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
Kelsey Leroy Pharr
Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in Miami is considered by many to be Florida’s most significant predominantly African-American cemetery. Its roots date back to 1914, when Kelsey Leroy Pharr, a mortician from Boston, began a funeral business catering to Miami’s black community, considered the city’s first licensed black embalmer and funeral director. Pharr would also operate the city’s first black-owned ambulance service and opened the first community public telephone and Western Union service in the area. He would also go on to establish Florida’s first black Boy Scout troop in 1943.
Lincoln Memorial Park
According to legend, Lincoln Memorial Park was established in 1923 by F. B. Miller. Pharr would cut down lynching victims he found hanging from trees and would bury these people in secret on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery so that they have a dignified resting place. He was caught by Miller, the landowner, performing one of these burials, and taken aback by Pharr’s compassion for these people, he sold the property to Pharr at a highly discounted price.
What is known for sure is that Pharr began purchasing pieces of the property starting in 1923 from F. B Miller & Company. Lincoln Memorial Park was officially incorporated on May 9, 1924. By 1937, Pharr had purchased the entire 20 acres and had the lots consolidated into one property under his ownership. Under Pharr’s ownership, Lincoln Memorial Park was touted as “The Finest Colored Cemetery in the South”, with many of Miami’s notable black citizens buried here.
Probably the most well-known citizen buried at Lincoln Memorial Park is Dana Albert Dorsey. Dorsey was born in Quitman, Georgia, in March 1868. According to his daughter, Dorsey was a superintendent at a Sunday school and had a son, Ezekiel Dorsey. It’s unknown what happened, but he got a raft and left Georgia, heading south and landing in Palatka where he lived for a number of years. He later came to Miami in 1896 and worked as a carpenter for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad.
Since he was black, Dorsey couldn’t get financing so he paid everything in cash, building capital by purchasing land from Julia Tuttle and other established white citizens, building homes on those lots, and renting them out.
Dorsey owned vast amounts of property throughout Dade County. One of the earliest land purchases Dorsey made was from Joseph T. Frow on July 22, 1900. The property is located around 3277 Charles Avenue in Coconut Grove, a neighborhood where other black pioneers resided such as Mariah brown and E. W. F. Stirrup, and a few lots down from where the Coconut Grove Playhouse would later be constructed.
In 1913, Dorsey built his personal residence at 250 NW 9th Street in Overtown. The original home was demolished in 1990, and the current home on the property is a replica built by the Black History Archives & Research Foundation of South Florida. Not too far from his home, Dorsey constructed The Dorsey Hotel in 1920, Miami’s first black-owned hotel, where many black entertainers stayed such as Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Dinah Washington. The hotel burned down in January 1981.
At one point, Dorsey also owned what is now known as Fisher Island, one of the area’s most wealthy and exclusive residential enclaves. In 1918, he announced plans to build a high-class colored resort on the island which would feature a hotel, cottages for “well-to-do men of his own race, and boats to convey back and forth between the mainland and the island so there will be no conflict of the races in the project.” The project never materialized and the island was sold to Carl G. Fisher in 1919.
He invested heavily in the community, financing parks, libraries, and schools in black neighborhoods. He established the Miami Dorsey High School in 1936 which still exists today as the D. A. Dorsey Technical College. He also founded the Negro Savings Bank and helped finance numerous business ventures of other black citizens. At the time of his death in 1940, he owned real estate valued at $50,000 and stocks, bonds, and cash amounting to $10,000.
H. E. S. Reeves
Henry Ethelbert Sigismund Reeves established the Miami Times in 1923, the city’s first black newspaper which often rallied against segregation. Reeves was born on November 16, 1882, in San Salvador, Bahamas. He served as an apprentice at the Nassau Guardian and decided to pursue the newspaper business.
In 1919, he was on his way to New York via Miami when he was persuaded to start a newspaper there, which he did with partners, Dr. A. P. Holley and M. C. Bodie, whom he had previously known in the Bahamas, and Rev. Samuel A. Sampson. The Magic Printing Company, later known as the Magic Printery, and the Miami Sun were the results of this partnership.
In 1921, Reeves became the sole owner of the publishing business and newspaper and relocated the business to 826 NW 3rd Avenue in Overtown. In 1923, the first issue of the weekly Miami Times was published. Today, the Miami Times weekly newspaper is still in operation and is considered the country’s oldest black-owned newspaper.
Arthur and Polly Mays
Arthur Mays came to South Florida in 1900 and worked as a sharecropper, eventually becoming a very prosperous landowner. He married Polly Tanner in 1908 and the two were considered “champions of education in the Goulds area”. In the time of segregation, they started a school for black children in the town of Goulds in 1914. When Goulds Elementary was officially established, few blacks had a form of transportation to get there so the Mays bought a wagon and transported children at their own expense. The Mays eventually raised enough money to purchase three school buses with Polly Mays serving as a bus driver for 15 years.
Dr. William A. Chapman
Dr. William A. Chapman was one of Miami’s first black physicians and was known for his educational programs on communicable diseases. He was also the first black physician on the Florida State Board of Health, president of the Colored Association for Family Welfare and the Colored Division of the Community Chest, and Vice-Chair of the Colored Advisory Board to the Dade County Schools.
Gwen Sawyer Cherry
Gwen Sawyer Cherry was the first African-American woman to practice law in Miami. She would also become the first African-American woman in the state’s legislature and a founder of the National Association of Black Women Attorneys. Her father was Dr. William Sawyer, Miami’s first prominent black doctor and one of the founders of Christian Hospital, who is also buried here at Lincoln Memorial.
Every day black laborers and workers are also buried here from Vietnam veterans and police officers who were killed in the line of duty to grocery clerks and railroad conductors. The cemetery is estimated to have 30,000 graves. Due to many graves sinking into the earth and space limitations, many people were buried stacked on one another, sometimes three graves deep. The Coral Gables Museum has been working with the surrounding community to identify the thousands of graves on the property.
Decline of Lincoln Memorial Park
Pharr passed away in 1964 and was buried at Lincoln Memorial alongside his wife and son. Ownership of the cemetery was passed on to his long-time friend, Ellen Johnson who, for many years, did her best to maintain the beauty and integrity of the cemetery up until the late-1990s when she began suffering from Alzheimer’s. As her illness progressed, it became more difficult to maintain the property and so it slowly deteriorated.
The cemetery has had issues with grave robbers, breaking into graves, and stealing bones. The current caretaker said he was once offered $1,000 for a skull. Those breaking in often leave behind animal carcasses and bones, from deer skulls to even monkey skeletons. Other cemeteries in the area have also had issues with grave robbers, usually stealing the bones of children.
In 1989, a local man by the name of Henry Givens read about a large ficus tree at Evergreen Cemetery that had fallen and cracked open or damaged at least 20 concrete vaults and caskets. Givens filed a complaint and invited Gerald A. Lewis, the state comptroller, to tour four other heavily neglected cemeteries in Dade County. These cemeteries were Carver Cemetery in Princeton, Pinelawn Cemetery in Richmond Heights, Charlotte Jane Memorial Park in Coconut Grove, and Lincoln Memorial Park.
At Pinelawn and Lincoln, state employees found no maps showing who was buried where. The owners of these cemeteries were given additional orders to show proof that they know who is buried where. Ellen Johnson said she had records of all the burials at Lincoln, but Lewis’ office was requiring she prepare a map showing occupied and vacant spaces. “Since 1965, they have never asked me for any map, and all of a sudden they are asking for everything except God and the moon,” Johnson told The Miami Herald. “They have not cared about black cemeteries until this all happened at Evergreen.”
The state also gave orders to the owners of Pinelawn Cemetery, Carver Cemetery, and Lincoln Memorial Park to clear trash and weeds away from the burial plots. Although it was what started the investigation, Evergreen Cemetery was exempt from these orders as Lewis’ office had no jurisdiction over it because it was run by a church, the Greater Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
Johnson maintained Lincoln Memorial Park to the best of her abilities and with the little money she had. The cemetery continued falling into disrepair until Johnson’s death in 2015, at which point the ownership of the property was passed over to her niece, Jessica Williams. Williams has made an effort to clean up the property by working alongside the Coral Gables Museum and hiring a caretaker, Arthur Kennedy, to live on the property to chase off anyone trespassing.
The Miami Metropolis. (May 1, 1918). ISLAND OPPOSITE MIAMI SOLD FOR COLORED RESORT
The Miami News; Howard Kleinberg. (February 6, 1982 p. 13). Tracing black pioneers
The Miami News. (January 22, 1981 p. 1). Black pioneer’s Dorsey hotel gone in a blaze
The Miami Herald. (June 8, 1989 p. 28). Cleanup ordered at 3 cemeteries
The Miami Herald; Ivan Roman. (May 13, 1989 p. 128). Official laments ‘indescribable’ cemeteries
Thank you for sharing information about the state of this historic cemetery where my grandmother is also buried. I would love to know what can be done to begin taking care of the cemetery.
Thanks for sharing, I would like to make a connection with being that I am starting the groundwork for a documentary.
I would recommend getting in touch with Arthur Kennedy, the groundskeeper at the cemetery. I believe he’ll be of great help. He’s usually at the cemetery during normal hours.