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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
June 2018

The Miami City Cemetery is near death

At the Miami City Cemetery, respect for the dead is an ideal, not a reality

SCoverShot_0315urrounded by a 21st-century metropolis, the ten-acre Miami City Cemetery is a place where time seems to stand still. Yet a walk through the graveyard is a journey through Miami’s history -- through its founding days, Jim Crow segregation, elected governments, and sacrifices in wars far away.

Purchased by the city in 1897 from Mary Brickell, the widow of Miami co-founder William Brickell, for $750, the pine rockland property was located half a mile north of the city limits, which was then Wardell Street, now 14th Street. The cemetery’s eastern border was Avenue C, now NE 2nd Avenue; its western edge was Avenue D, now N. Miami Avenue. (Its modern-day address is 1800 NE 2nd Ave.)

Soon after the site’s acquisition, Miami Commissioner F.S. Morse had the property surveyed and subdivided into plots, with its easternmost acres reserved for whites and portions of the west for the black population. Since then, a total of eight sections have been created. In 1915 the B’nai Zion congregation, Miami’s first synagogue, purchased blocks of the cemetery for $400 to create a walled Jewish section. An American Legion section holds more than 2000 veterans and their families. Additional soldier graves are found elsewhere in the cemetery.

Along the north and south fence lines, which were originally the roads North Drive and South Drive, are double rows of hundreds of war veterans and soldiers killed in action or who died of disease during the first two world wars, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. There are graves of 66 Confederate and 27 Union veterans who fought in the Civil War, and 209 Spanish-American War veterans.

The original site map depicts three roundabouts along the east-west road that cuts through the cemetery. Today only two roundabouts remain along this route, called Central Avenue. The easternmost circle holds the graves of Julia Tuttle and her family. Tuttle, “the mother of Miami,” had persuaded Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami. She died in 1898 and was the 12th person buried there. FEC trains can still be seen from her gravesite, traveling along Flagler’s original route south.

CoverStory_1_Lead_0434Other pioneering families can be found in the city cemetery: the Burdines (John Burdine founded the department store chain); Charles and Isabella Peacock (who in 1882 opened the first hotel between Key West and Palm Beach County, the Bay View House in Coconut Grove, later called the Peacock Inn); the Jacksons (James Jackson was Miami’s first physician and the namesake of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital); the Seybolds (John Seybold built one of Miami’s first bakeries and developed the Spring Garden neighborhood, now an historic district); the Belchers (S.A. Belcher served on the county commission and helped create the county’s first paved roads); and numerous black Bahamian incorporators of the city. Miami’s first mayor, John B. Reilly, and its third mayor, John Sewell, are buried there as well.

The western roundabout, known as Confederate Circle, is the resting place of 19 Confederate soldiers and a granite monument erected by the Southern Cross Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated “To All Who Wore Grey.” This memorial had originally served as the base for a 24-foot-tall obelisk, located at the old Dade County courthouse on Flagler Street from 1914 until 1927; when the courthouse was demolished, the monument was moved to its current location. A subsequent hurricane destroyed the obelisk, and all that remains is the base, which features a bas-relief sculpture of the Confederate flag.

Nearby and off Central Avenue is a Mediterranean-style pavilion that holds an office and two bathrooms, which are kept locked. This structure was built on the site of the old third roundabout. On July 28, 2004, a time capsule was installed by city officials in the pavilion’s concrete floor, due to be opened on July 28, 2097, Miami’s 200th birthday.


Ghost hunters travel to the cemetery to film and record, in hopes of capturing glimpses of spirits. But with imagination, some archival research, and a guided tour, a visitor can resurrect the stories of the special residents of the City Cemetery.

 

Captain Jacob C. Kuney was a young telegraph operator in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he deciphered the message that Fort Sumter had fallen, an event that marked the start of the Civil War. He later helped organize the Landrum Guards, the fifth military company in Shreveport. After the war, he was founder and president of the Blue and Gray Association, which brought together veterans from both sides in peaceful picnics at Miami Beach. He died at age 99 and is buried at Miami City Cemetery.

 

 

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According to Eugene Ramirez, director of the Office of Communications for the City of Miami, 9120 burials have taken place at the cemetery, and there are 10,000 plots, all of them privately owned. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains the grounds and employs a full-time sexton. The city averages a handful of burials a year. Miami City Cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983 and is a state-designated Florida Heritage site.

Although the cemetery is a historical landmark, it’s had a long history of being in rough shape. Only five years after its founding, the cemetery was described as “a barren, forsaken God’s acre,” as documented in Thelma Peters’s book Miami 1909. Efforts were made by the city council to improve its condition by appointing a caretaking committee, digging a well, and installing a windmill to pump water for landscaping.

In 1913, an editorial in the Miami Metropolis newspaper expressed shame for “the neglect and carelessness” the city had shown the “place where so many of its loved ones have been laid for their eternal sleep.”

Ronnie Hurwitz is a 30-year volunteer at the cemetery. He recognizes the current needs of the old cemetery but admits that things are better there now than in years past. Hurwitz remembers the crack years of the 1980s, when bronze grave plaques were ripped out and sold to buy drugs. Scores of headstones had toppled over or been broken by storms or vandalism. The cemetery was a place for prostitution and illegal drug use, and indeed, a prostitute had been found murdered on the steps of the Burdine mausoleum.

In 1997, Enid Pinkney and the Dade Heritage Trust African-American Committee, along with Penny Lambeth and the Miami City Cemetery Task Force, created a plan of action to beautify the cemetery.

CoverStory_3_0366“The place needed TLC,” Lambeth told the Miami Herald in 2013. “It didn’t have a fence or lights. The first ‘everything’ is here. The first mayor. The first black judge. The first black attorney. You really can’t talk about Miami without talking about this cemetery.”

The task force partnered with the parks department to obtain $110,000 in federal HUD funding to replace the original masonry wall and iron fencing, surrounding the property with a new eight-foot iron fence. Volunteers planted hundreds of native and flowering trees, and an Eagle Scout project involved the hand-scrubbing of 535 war veterans’ grave markers. Sixty broken headstones were repaired, and the parks department installed decorative night lighting.

Still, years later, dozens of headstones remain fallen over, broken, or in fragments. Tree roots have caused many to tilt, and vandalism is on the rise, especially after dark and in the form of tipped headstones, says Hurwitz.

Some mausoleum doors are missing and have temporary plywood fixes. Smashed vaults hold exposed coffins and visible bones. Many ground tablets are missing or hidden in the overgrown grass and weeds. Mold and other biological growth is an ongoing invader of stone, and years of buildup have made inscriptions unreadable. Hand-inscribed concrete headstones in the black section are eroding from exposure to the elements. Weed trimmers, lawn mowers, and caustic chemicals have all contributed to the damage.

 

John W. Watson Sr., Miami pioneer, state senator, and two-time mayor of Miami (1913-1915 and 1917-1919), died in 1942. Watson Island is named after him. The ground tablet at his gravesite is askew, perhaps damaged from a lawnmower.

 

Another gravesite in trouble was that of Miami pioneer Adam Corell.

 

Adam Corell was born in New York in 1850. He owned 20 acres in the Orange Ridge area of Miami (the modern-day Gladeview neighborhood in Liberty City), where he grew orange and grapefruit trees. Corell also owned a livery stable on Avenue D (now Miami Avenue) and SW 1st Street, which rented horses and buggies to the growing community. Ironically, he was one of the first Miamians to own an automobile. City records show that in 1906, he registered a four-horsepower steam vehicle made by the Locomobile Co. of America. He was also a charter member of Biscayne Bay Lodge No. 124, Miami’s first Masonic Order lodge. He died in 1909 and is interred at the City Cemetery. His above-ground vault was found smashed open and remained exposed to the elements for months. Anyone walking by could see the bones of Adam Corell.

 


HCoverStory_4_0078urwitz walks around with the tools of cemetery maintenance: a hoe-pick, lopping shears, a machete, and a scrub brush. Every day on his way home from work, he stops in at the cemetery, and he puts in long hours on his days off, cleaning the markers, weeding, resetting sunken headstones, and adding holiday touches to the graves, such as American flags for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. He estimates that he has uncovered some 250 overgrown gravesites over the years, with the help of cemetery archives. He knows the personal stories of hundreds of people buried there and tells the BT he wants someday to write a book about them.


Hurwitz pays closest attention to the graves of those soldiers killed in action, like that of Willie Lee Anderson.

 

Willie Lee Anderson of Miami served in the U.S. Army 35th “Cacti” Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. He took part in the U.N. Summer-Fall Offensive of the Korean War, from April 10 to October 25, 1951, when he was killed in action at age 18 in Kumhwa, near the town of Kumsong in North Korea. One of a dozen black soldiers at the cemetery killed during the Korean War, he’s buried in the soldiers’ “colored section” along the south fence line.

 

Hurwitz is most proud of finding the unmarked grave of World War II soldier John W. Little.

 

PFC John W. Little, age 19, of Homestead, was killed in action March 2, 1945, near Cologne, Germany, and was initially buried in an American military cemetery in Belgium. Later, his remains were transferred to Miami City Cemetery. He fought in and survived the Battle of the Bulge. After reportedly receiving a “dear John” letter from his wife, he volunteered for another dangerous mission, in which he died.

 

CoverStory_5_0495After some detective work, Hurwitz realized that Little’s grave must be in the Mowry family plot, which holds the remains of his grandparents and an uncle. A new gravestone was commissioned, and Hurwitz organized an unveiling ceremony, with the aid of city officials and Congressman Carlos Curbelo, that was held on February 8, 2018. Little received a military honor guard with a gun salute and folded-flag ceremony.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd,” recalls Hurwitz. On each side of the grave, he keeps an American flag decorated with a gold star, one that recognizes Little’s gold star family, having had a loved one killed in action.

Another World War II soldier buried at the cemetery is Staff Sgt. John J. Pavia.

 

John J. Pavia, age 21, a Miami native, was killed in action on April 20, 1944. A navigator and nose gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” with the 339th Bomb Squadron (not 399th, as inscribed on his gravestone), he was flying for the Army Air Force on a mission to target German V-weapon sites in Pas-de-Calais, in the north of France. His plane was shot down by enemy fire, broke in half, and crashed in Hallines, France. As a civilian, he had worked in the wrapping department at Burdines.

 

Hurwitz knows all of these Miami City Cemetery soldiers and loves to tell their stories, like that of Homer L. Smith.

 

First Lt. Homer L. Smith was 24 years old when he was killed in an American air attack in Germany. He was considered missing in action in 1945, as part of one of two “lost regiments” of the 106th Division near St. Vith in Belgium. He was a POW in Hammelburg, Germany, and later moved to another POW camp when he was killed by friendly fire. He was a native Miamian and had previously worked for the Florida East Coast Railroad.

 


CCoverStory_6_0185hristine Rupp, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, sees a great potential partnership between the Trust and the city’s parks department, and envisions the possibilities for restoring and properly maintaining the cemetery. An annual tour of the city cemetery is one of her numerous community-outreach bike tours to local historic sites.

“This could be an historic tourist attraction,” she says, gesturing out among the old headstones during a recent visit there with the

In October 2017, she told the Miami Herald: “Typically you walk into a cemetery with a sense of respect for a lovely place. Here we have some markers covered with weeds or fallen over. But God bless Parks and Recreation for taking responsibility to maintain it.”

The Trust’s African-American Committee and the Miami City Cemetery Task Force are no longer active, with the passing of Penny Lambeth in October 2016, and Enid Pinkney has moved on to help the Lemon City Cemetery, says Rupp. She believes the city should have the funds to make repairs as needed at the cemetery and is currently looking to create a funding stream through grants. A city cemetery foundation, she says, could help the city shoulder the responsibility of caring for the historical site.

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Rupp says she has been in contact with Rosa Lowinger & Associates, a firm with offices in Miami and Los Angeles that specializes in art and architectural conservation, about possible work to survey the property and recommend a cleanup and landscaping plan. The cemetery is protected by the city from future development, but only if it is kept from total disrepair.

In an e-mail exchange with the BT, Eugene Ramirez, the city’s communications director, says, “We were happy to partner with Enid Pinkney and the Dade Heritage Trust to select and replace one gravestone within the historic black parcel each year. As of 2017, all of the gravestones in this area had been replaced.”

But grave markers, vaults, and mausoleums in all the other sections need help as well. Miami has no future plans for improvements at the cemetery, says Ramirez, adding that he feels city leadership is open to community feedback and “will work with interested parties to improve our shared spaces. Partnerships have been successful in the past, and we can continue to work to beautify our parks.”

One person buried beneath a restored headstone in the “colored section,” near a tool shed in the cemetery, is Bernard “Bernie” Arthur Neal Mackey.

 

Bernie Mackey died in 1980 and was a member of the legendary black pop quartet known as the Ink Spots. He was a baritone vocalist and guitar player for the group during the war years of 1943-1945. The Ink Spots’ style influenced the birth of R&B, rock and roll, and doo-wop. Recordings of pop artists of the day, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Bull Moose Jackson, and Bunny Berigan, feature Mackey’s guitar and vocal contributions.

 

CoverStory_8_0035The city coordinates with Rabbi Thomas Heyn of Temple Israel of Greater Miami for an annual cleanup of the cemetery’s Jewish section. But the city also has a troubling history. In 2010, the Miami Herald reported that the city planned to build a $2.2 million skateboard park next to the historic cemetery at adjacent Biscayne Park. Then Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff supported the plan but said he would search for alternative sites.

Historian and preservationist Avra Moore Parks, who owns a plot in the cemetery, was appalled at the lack of respect. She told the Herald that other cities protect their historic burial sites. “Nobody else would do this. Not to their founding fathers and mothers. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Families of the Miami pioneers buried there, as well as preservationists and nearby Temple Israel’s congregation, led the opposition, and ultimately they won out. The skateboard park plan at Biscayne Park was dropped.

In 2010, the not-for-profit TREEmendous Miami held a “Great Replanting of Trees” event at the cemetery, planting 65 trees throughout the property. Hurricane Irma in 2017 downed dozens of those shade and tropical trees and scattered debris throughout the cemetery, and their removal with large equipment rolling through was a problem, as workers and volunteers tried to protect graves and markers. Some headstones sank into the cavities left behind from the uprooted trees. It took weeks for volunteers to finish the cleanup.

Many of the oldest gravesites have concrete curbing planters where family members grew flower gardens. A century later, with their closest relatives now gone as well, the grave gardens are unattended, either bare or full of weeds. The cemetery’s lack of an irrigation system is what bothers Hurwitz most. Through the years, he planted hundreds of rose bushes by soldiers’ graves, and they’ve withered away. The old windmill pump system installed in 1902 by the city council hasn’t operated in years. Hurwitz brings gallon jugs of water from home since the bathrooms are locked, but he can’t keep up with the thirsty plants.

He’d also like to see some additional garbage cans. Currently, the ten-acre site has just one rubberized bin. And installing signage indicating important grave sites would be a plus. (In May, the Dillion family descendants erected a historical plaque on their ancestors’ marker.)

Hurwitz knows the restoration is a work in progress. As he leads a visitor around, he points out the Vereen family mausoleum.

 

Lt. Col. Hartford H. Vereen was killed in a plane crash over Ireland during World War II. He was a member of a Miami pioneer family and was a former attorney. He was married to Constance Seybold of another well-known founding family of Miami.

 

CoverStory_9_0376The Vereen mausoleum’s door is gone, and the plywood covering the gap is mostly ripped off. Several weeks before the BT’s visit there, Hurwitz says, he noticed dozens of discarded used needles on the floor inside the vault. He left a polite notice taped to the entranceway in hopes of shaming future trespassers.

“I haven’t seen signs of anyone in there since,” he says.

During the BT’s visit, numerous offerings -- ranging from crumpled cookies, pastries, and crackers to dollar bills, notes requesting protection, candies, and animal remains -- lay scattered about various gravesites. At one grave marker a paper bag held a headless chicken. Hurwitz says the weirdest offering he’s found there was a pig head in a frying pan.

The grave belonging to Lt. Gen. N.I. Egoroff is a recipient of weekly sweets, says Hurwitz. Egoroff was with the Imperial Russian Army during World War I and died on New Year’s Eve 1953 at age 90.

While studying cemetery archives, Hurwitz says, he noticed an unusual number of deaths caused by trains. Suicides were also a not uncommon cause of death among those buried at the City Cemetery. Several firemen and police officers were killed in the line of duty. May is Police Memorial Month, and all lawmen’s graves at Miami City Cemetery are decorated with American flags that have one distinctive blue stripe -- a thin blue line. Among those buried at the cemetery is Deputy Sheriff Wilbur Hendrickson, Deputy Rhett McGregor, and Officer Leroy LaFleur.

 

Deputy Sheriff Wilbur Hendrickson was shot and killed in 1915 in the line of duty. The Ashley Gang was a notorious group of bank and train robbers who operated from hideouts in the Everglades and later ran rum during Prohibition. John Ashley, head of the gang, was being held in the Dade County jail for the murder of Desoto Tiger, a Seminole trapper. His brother Bob traveled down from Palm Beach County to break him out. He shot Hendrickson at the front door of his house, next to the jail, but then dropped Hendrickson’s jailhouse keys in his panic and hijacked a truck to get away.

A second officer, J.R. Riblet, pursued brother Bob Ashley, and they killed each other in a shootout. Several thousand Miamians threatened to rush the jail and lynch John Ashley, but they were satisfied by watching authorities parade the body of his brother through the streets.

Deputy Murrettus “Rhett” McGregor was the first law-enforcement officer to be buried in Miami City Cemetery. He was shot on August 9, 1895, in Lemon City by fugitive Sam Lewis, on the run after shooting two men in cold blood. Two weeks later, McGregor was on a stakeout and shot at Lewis, who fell to the ground. But McGregor refused to kill a man on the ground and instead leaned over the man to get a better look, at which point Lewis pulled out a pistol and shot him several times. McGregor suffered for three days before he died; Lewis was dragged by a mob from his jail cell a few weeks later and lynched. Ten years after his death, McGregor’s family had his body disinterred and buried at the cemetery.

Leroy LaFleur was a World War II veteran and one of Miami’s first black police officers. He wasn’t permitted to make arrests or even question whites as he patrolled what was then referred to as “Colored Town,” now Overtown. He was killed in the line of duty on February 16, 1951, at Nasty Man’s Cafe on 14th Street and 3rd Avenue after waking up a drunken man. According to Hurwitz, his murder is one of two unsolved murders of Miami police officers.

 


OCoverStory_10_0063n Saturday, May 5, Dade Heritage Trust hosted a free cemetery restoration workshop at their Brickell office and at the City Cemetery, during which a dozen volunteers learned the tools and safe methods needed for removing centuries of grime from grave markers, as well as the many federal, state, and local laws involved in cemetery protection.

The idea for the workshop was born in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, when the city was handing out bleach and Formula 409 to clean the markers. It’s an approach that restoration experts consider far too caustic. The workshop is the first step toward the goal of creating a cohesive group of volunteers to serve on a new cemetery committee under the Trust’s leadership.

Executive director Rupp explains that the committee would meet with the city to put forward a restoration plan for the historic site. “A marker survey estimate has already been received, as well as a landscape survey estimate,” she says, referring to her talks with the restoration firm. “Outreach to families of those buried here would be ideal.”

The restoration workshop was led by Sara Ayers-Rigsby, director of the Southeast/Southwest regions for the Florida Public Archeology Network, and Mallory Fenn, the network’s public archeology coordinator. It was the 75th such cemetery resource protection training (CRPT) workshop in the past ten years and is a program of Florida Atlantic University’s Anthropology Department.

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“Cemeteries are public museums -- that’s why they should be preserved,” says Fenn. “We have a moral and ethical responsibility to regulate human remains and to preserve the past. Cemeteries have archaeological importance. It takes time, effort, and funds to properly maintain them.”

Workshop attendees include an historian at the Coral Gables Museum, who helped organize cleanups at Lincoln Cemetery in Miami; Lincoln Cemetery’s owner and its caretaker; Trust board members and volunteers; a Realtor; and concerned citizens. By the end of the day, the volunteers were cleaning grave markers with a special agent in the preferred method for cleansing historic public buildings, such as the White House and the U.S. Capitol. D/2 Biological Solution removes biological growth deposits, such as fungi, mold, algae, lichens, and mosses, and can help keep the surface clean for up to two years. Soft plastic bristle brushes gently scrub away years of black from the granite and marble markers.

Ayers-Rigsby and Fenn examined Adam Corell’s smashed above-ground vault and concluded that its exposed section had been poorly re-mortared in the past. It had caved in along the repair line.

“This needs immediate attention,” said Fenn, and the archaeologists, along with Rupp of DHT, wasted no time coordinating with the city to repair it. Within four days, the vault’s gaping hole will have been sealed with cement.

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Kathy Moore is one of the workshop’s participants. Her great-grandfather, T.V. Moore, “the Pineapple King,” is buried next to her great-grandmother, Mary Moore, one of the founders of the Red Cross. Her grandparents and other relatives are nearby. She had been a vocal opponent of the proposed skate park next door.

“This is a peaceful cemetery,” she says. “My family is buried here. I will be buried here.” She points to her future resting place, next to an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.

“There are many more unmarked graves here,” says Hurwitz, who believes he has finally located the site of a mass burial of hurricane victims from the early 20th century. Twelve men were among the many victims of the wreck of the steamer St. Lucie in the October 18, 1906, hurricane.

The St. Lucie had been part of Henry Flagler’s steamship line that ran between Miami and Key West. On that October day, the ship had left the Miami River on its way to Key West when it ran head-on into the storm and sank near Elliott Key. The bodies washed ashore at Soldier Key in what is now Biscayne National Park. Only two of the twelve men were ever identified. The graves are registered in the cemetery archives, which notes the block and lot numbers, but those are difficult to locate at the cemetery. No markers, if there ever were any, remain. Hurwitz plans to change that after positively identifying the graves’ locations.

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At this writing, Hurwitz is packing for his dream trip to Arlington National Cemetery and has about 50 graves to clean, weed, and decorate for Memorial Day, those of police and firemen killed in the line of duty; soldiers killed in action or who died of disease during the two world wars; the dozen black soldiers who were killed in Korea; and two who died in battle in Vietnam. He leads two tours of the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day.

The history buff clearly cares about the men, women, and children beneath his feet and wishes to somehow, someday be buried among them. In 2012 he was recognized with a plaque of appreciation for his decades of volunteer service by the Dade Heritage Trust during its annual awards ceremony.

His hope is to bring dignity to each person buried in the city cemetery. And if you happen to hear music while walking through the graveyard, it’s Hurwitz, playing period songs on his truck stereo for the residents at Miami City Cemetery.

 

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