Graveyards Help Unearth City's History; Local Cemeteries Tell More about Jacksonville Than Just Who's Buried There

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

If Old City Cemetery is a glimpse into history, then 19th-century Jacksonville had a lot of stories to tell.

The first city cemetery holds burials from the 1850s forward of people both prominent and ordinary, from all walks of life. A lucky few get access to spots even today.

Here lies former Gov. Francis P. Fleming.

Here lies Clara and Eartha White.

Here lies a girl who died of yellow fever, and a stone's throw away her nursemaid and her nursemaid's five sons, who died of yellow fever, too.

The front, off Union Street, is for members of St. John's Episcopal, where the dead were dug up and moved from the churchyard across the street.

Down on one side is the Jewish section. Next door, the Catholic section.

There is a section for freed African-American slaves. Nearby, a plot for Confederate soldiers.

A section for the Order of Odd Fellows. For the Masons. For babies, buried for free by a compassionate superintendent.

The stories -- some well-known, some not, some lost to the ravages of time, neglect and fire -- make Old City Cemetery the first chapter in a long history of changes in where Jacksonville's dead are buried.

CEMETERIES HAVE MUCH TO TELL

With just a few hundred people, family plots and churchyards were more the norm for burials until the mid-1800s, said Shannon Palmer, director of the Cemetery Recovery and Preservation Trust of Jacksonville, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and catalog historic cemeteries in Jacksonville.

Old City Cemetery on East Union Street was created in 1852. Evergreen Cemetery, which also had designated plots for various "ethnic and heritage groups," conducted its first burial in 1881.

The first cemeteries, such as Old City and Evergreen, were all-inclusive but rigidly separated inside. A century later, it's hard for the untrained eye to tell who's who.

In the early decades of the 20th century, cemeteries grew, in a way, more segregated. The African-American community sought to open its own cemeteries instead of being relegated to the black-only sections of white cemeteries. That led to the creation of cemeteries such as Sunset Memorial, established along with two others by a now-defunct company.

Most of Jacksonville's more than 120 cemeteries have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair, with no one to protect and preserve them, Palmer said.

"It's sad," she said: Historic cemeteries have much to tell the city about its past.

A PLACE FOR EVERYONE

These days, active burial grounds aren't as segregated as in the past. …