When you enter the gates to the Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries, two of Florida's oldest African American cemeteries located in St. Augustine, Florida, you are greeted with a sense of historic importance that makes a lasting impression, but you are also left with a feeling of sadness for all those people whose names are no longer visible, almost as if their place in history has been erased.
Raising funds to replace lost grave markers at the Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries is a priority for the West Augustine Improvement Association, but the non–profit, volunteer-run organization is also raising funds for cemetery upkeep.
While more than 200 graves are either unmarked or about to lose their grave markers at this African American cemetery, the initial goal for this campaign is to raise funds for 50 granite gravestones to replace some of the grave markers that are either lost or in danger of degrading beyond recognition before the names are lost forever.
The goal is for each unmarked grave to receive an 8" x "18" wide x 4" deep granite gravestone that will stand the test of time and hold up against Florida's weather. A local company will engrave and install the granite gravestone for $210. A small amount for the lasting value it will provide.
While the cemeteries are now walkable thanks to West Augustine Improvement Association, Florida’s fast-growing vegetation, severe weather as well as years of neglect and abandonment have taken a toll, and many grave markers are either crumbling or are gone completely. Unmarked graves make it difficult to determine exactly how old these cemeteries are, but the oldest known grave dates back to 1879. The cemeteries were officially established around 1884 "to be used for all colored denominations" according to the deeds.
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 number of the headstones also bear witness to the sacrifice of the many men of color joining the military to protect their country. The remnants of segregation are still stark even after death in this community, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought the non-violent fight side by side with community leaders, locals, and students from the segregated schools.
Controversy over ownership left these 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. Without ownership or any funds available, these organizations were limited in what they could do.
One of those organizations is the West Augustine Improvement Association founded by schoolteacher Nellie Mead in 1956, and the organization has helped with the upkeep for more than two decades. In recent years the West Augustine Improvement Association acquired the grounds of The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries. Without any income from new burials, the upkeep of the grounds is currently left up to volunteers from the small organization, who cut the grass as best as they can in their spare time, and when funds are available, they pay someone from the local community to help out.
The West Augustine Improvement Association now organizes several cemetery cleanup events every year in coordination with other local organizations, clubs, and churches, and the difference is noticeable. Many headstones shine bright, some have been restored to the point where names previously not legible can be deciphered, and you now get a sense of the cemetery’s beauty when you visit.
One of the grave markers that has been lost to time is that of Artemesia Holloway Jones. She was a well-known columnist of Versanoie's Corner for the St. Augustine Record. She was born in 1906 and buried at the San Sebastian Cemetery in 1999. Two years ago, when the organization hosted its first cemetery cleanup event, you could still make out Holloway Jones’ name although her grave marker had begun to crumble, but sadly it has now completely disintegrated.
African American cemeteries all over the country are in danger and many caring people are working to make a change. While this group is small and their access to funds is limited, their passion for helping the community and for honoring those that came before them is immense.
The West Augustine Improvement Association is hoping you will join them in making a difference in these two cemeteries in Saint Augustine, Florida.
Any donation is greatly appreciated, no amount is too small.
As an alternative to this GoFundMe campaign, there is also the option of sponsoring a grave through the Pinehurst & San Sebastian Sponsor-a-Grave campaign, which can be found on the organization’s new website https://www.westaugustineimprovementassociation.org