Hurricane Irma disturbs the peace at historically black Gulfport cemetery

Booker students come in to the rescue

GULFPORT, Fla. - A 90-year-old St. Petersburg cemetery has been left buried under debris due to Hurricane Irma. However, 24 tiny and unlikely saviors came in to the cemetery's rescue.

A fence separates two cemeteries dating back to the 1920s. The fence a symbol of segregation. On one side the Royal Palm Cemetery, where families can still lay their loved ones to rest today. On the other side, the historically black Lincoln Cemetery, closed to new burials. One cemetery appears to be straight out of a movie. It is perfectly manicured, not one blade of grass seemingly out of place. But Lincoln Cemetery, showing its years and now, due to Hurricane Irma, in need of some major upkeep.

Peace is disturbed at Lincoln. Trees have been uprooted and debris is covering up the old tombstones.

“It was an absolute mess after Hurricane Irma," said Vanessa Gray, President of the Lincoln Cemetery Society. "We had 17 fallen or damaged trees. These trees are bigger than me.”

Among the graves rests Emma E. Booker. She's an African-American educator who founded Sarasota County's first black school.

“It was just upsetting because these people shouldn’t have to rest in a place like this," said 16-year-old Maicy Powell, a student at Booker High School.
 
It's because of Emma E. Booker that 23 other kids from Booker Elementary, Middle and High traveled almost an hour away. This woman and educator their schools' namesake. Booker High School Principal, Rachel Shelley, witnessed the cemetery's need for some care and love after visiting Booker's gravesite in October. Along with Principals of Emma E. Booker Elementary and Booker Middle Schools, Edwina Oliver and LaShawn Frost, respectively, they organized a sort of field trip. Two dozen kids volunteering to help out.

“They were dragging brush someone three feet tall dragging brush that was bigger than them," said Gray, touched at the effort.

“I didn’t feel tired," said Powell, "This was actually something that was kind of fun.”

 Students swept away the debris uncovering tombstones and history. With each garbage bag filled, they gave back honor to this place of final rest.

“It really does feel amazing. You don’t realize how much of an impact it’s going to have on you," said Powell.

The schools hope to make this cleanup an annual occurrence but the cemetery needs help now. There's still significant debris, areas in need of moving and tree limbs in need of cutting down. If you'd like to volunteer call the cemetery at (727) 280-6635 or visit them online at lincolncemeterysociety.org.

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