The Oakland African-American Historic Cemetery has been part of the town since the 1880s, but not everyone knows about its existence and significance.
Oakland residents wanting to research the town’s history must go to a neighboring town to do so, but that’s about to change with the completion of the Healthy West Orange Arts and Heritage Center at the Town of Oakland.
The town has built its own place to store its historical records, photographs and ephemera, and the center should be open to the public by the end of the year.
An important piece of this town’s history is the Oakland African American Historic Cemetery, the town’s first black cemetery. Established in 1882, it is the final resting place for many of Oakland’s earliest and most notable residents. Oakland pioneer James Gamble Speer gave the original deed to three black trustees in 1917, according to town records.
Many folks aren’t aware of this secluded cemetery and know only of the other two: the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, which was the second cemetery for black residents, located off West Colonial Drive; and the Oakland Cemetery, which was for white residents, located northeast of the black cemetery with access off Sadler Road.
Burials stopped in the original black cemetery in the early 1950s, and after decades of neglect, it ended up buried deep in a wooded area just north of West Colonial Drive. Mostly hidden by weeds, downed limbs, giant banana-spider webs and debris are the final resting places of some of the earliest residents of Oakland. There are many children, too, as well as dozens of citrus workers, buried here.
Trees, brush and weeds slowly took over the nearly three-acre tract of land. The Cemetery Board deeded it to the town in 2014.
The town applied for Florida’s Historic Preservation Grant earlier this year and is the top-ranking application. The $25,000 matching grant will go toward maintenance and preservation of the cemetery, located at 16798 W. Colonial Drive.
One condition of the grant is that the town provide a 50% match: $12,500 in cash and $12,500 in in-kind donations that also would secure a fence around the property.
The grant becomes available in July 2021. Town Manager Steve Koontz said although the town has been approved to receive the grant, the actual amount will depend on how much is allotted in the state budget for the next fiscal year.
All money granted to Oakland will be used for the historic cemetery, including coming up with a plan for perpetual protection of the land.
“The town’s goal is to manage and protect this historically significant site for future generations,” Koontz said. “It is an important part of the heritage of the town and can be a place of contemplation and remembrance that will coincide with educational and cultural programming provided through the new Healthy West Orange Arts and Heritage Center at the Town of Oakland.”
PREVIOUS RESTORATION EFFORTS
With few exceptions, black and white residents were buried in the cemeteries according to their skin color.
In a racially diverse town, the racially divided cemeteries still exist — merely because people are buried in the cemeteries that hold family connections.
After the 1940s, when people were no longer being buried in the cemetery and visitors became scarce, vegetation grew rampant, concealing many of the headstones in their own mossy tomb.
For the next six decades, there was little activity there, so the trees, grass and weeds kept growing, eventually covering up all visible evidence of the cemetery’s existence.
The cemetery was “rediscovered” in 2004 when Florida’s Turnpike Authority officials were at the site to discuss road-widening plans. Ground-penetrating radar located the bodies, and a chain-link fence was installed around the perimeter.
Members from Oakland’s two Missionary Baptist churches, St. Paul and Tildenville, spent many mornings at the old cemetery, cutting down trees, determining where the bodies were buried, uncovering headstones, establishing the burial rows. It is their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who were laid to rest there.
The Oakland Tildenville Cemetery Committee uncovered shells and pipes and researched the artifacts’ purposes with the help of an archaeologist, and it turned out that many burial traditions were brought over from Africa.
Oakland native Betty Wade, 73, has been involved in the historic cemetery’s restoration for more than a decade for personal reasons — her grandfather, early settler James. W. Walker, and other family members are buried there.
No one seems to know how many people are buried in this cemetery, some as early as the 1880s and as late as 1949. There is no plot map and no formal burial list, so no one has a definitive list of who is buried there. There are a number of headstones missing. Some of the more elaborate ones that still remain mark the graves of prominent black Oakland residents, many of them Masons. More of the spots are tagged by metal markers, some with names, some without.
It is known that a large number died in the 1918 flu pandemic and are laid to rest here. Because Oakland was mainly an agricultural town, many unnamed seasonal workers who died of the flu likely are buried there, too.
Wade said there are probably a little more than 200 people buried in the cemetery.
A local Boy Scout and his volunteers built a new entrance off Oakland Avenue. Once hidden at the end of a dirt path, the entrance now is visible behind a locked gate on the east side of Longleaf at Oakland.
Koontz said the town is working on a clean-up plan and a management plan that will ensure ongoing maintenance that respects the historic significance of the land.
Once the clearing is complete, then work can begin on the next proposed phase of the project, which is to build a covered kiosk at the entrance and include a glass case with the cemetery’s history and a list of known buried people. The burial rows will be heavily mulched for visitors. Every plot will receive a marker, even if it reads “unknown.”
“We just haven’t had a plan and a way to maintain it the way it needs to be maintained,” Koontz said. “So that’s what we’re embarking on now. … What we’re trying to do moving forward through this grant is a plan to take care of it in perpetuity and make it accessible to the citizens in some form and fashion.”
Those plans include offering historic tours of the town’s three cemeteries and applying for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Being able to document the history of the cemetery is significant to understanding the story of how our community was founded and the importance of our heritage,” Wade, the cemetery’s past president, and Mona Phipps, past board member, wrote in a letter of support. “Seeing the cemetery restored would add a sense of pride while honoring those who are buried there.”
“We need to make sure we work with the appropriate person to preserve it in the right manner,” Mayor Kathy Stark said.