Group Tries to Preserve Historic Cemeteries; West Augustine Improvement Association Clears Graveyards in Blighted Area

Article excerpt

Byline: KEN LEWIS, The Times-Union

ST. AUGUSTINE -- Linda Murray knelt by the old grave site, clearing away weeds to show the symbolic chains on the stone.

As a member of the West Augustine Improvement Association, she is helping to clear the historic Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries in a blighted area a few hundred yards west of St. Augustine city limits. When the volunteers started working, the acreage in West Augustine was so overgrown that many people didn't even know it was a cemetery.

"This man was born a slave," she said, goosebumps breaking out on her arm. "That's what the chain symbolizes. We have a lot of history, going back here."

Group members started cleaning and restoring the cemeteries in February. They meet the first and third Saturdays of each month from 9 a.m. to noon, and they say they need community support.

A project is under way to determine whether these or other cemeteries in St. Johns County are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, said Charles Tingley, library manager of the St. Augustine Historical Research Library. It started after a state-requested survey of abandoned cemeteries was done by the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in 1999.

Sheila Greenleaf, a training clerk with the Sheriff's Office, spent nine months tending to the cemetery with Howard Strickland and Judy Allen in 1999, she said. They cataloged the names on the gravestones and tried to find obituaries and death certificates. They gave a report about their work to the St. Augustine Historical Society.

The Sheriff's Office survey found 44 cemeteries in St. Johns County, from the well-kept to the abandoned, she said. Nobody is sure who owns the San Sebastian cemetery, but it is old enough to bear Union soldiers from the Civil War.

"We believe San Sebastian is probably the oldest black cemetery in the area," Greenleaf said.

She and her allies tended to San Sebastian in 1999 from January to October, but they couldn't get community support for continued maintenance.

"I took my husband's chain saw and just flat wore it out to death," Greenleaf said. …