Loved ones of people buried at Lincoln Memorial Park call for restorations at cemetery

NORTHWEST MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – It was a chance invitation, but Thamar Timothee feels it was divine intervention.

"I felt a spirit calling me," she said.

Timothee said last fall, a friend invited her to a church service. After visiting, she said she could not ignore the cemetery across the street from the church.

"They're not resting in peace,” she said. “They're not resting."

Timothee said she walked into the cemetery and couldn't believe what she saw: parts of the place looked like a dumpsite. Too many of the vaults and gravesites were covered in weeds, some seemed to spill out into the neighborhood.

"When I looked and I saw this, I said, 'This can't be,'" Timothee said.

Timothee said she first visited Lincoln Memorial Park, at the corner of Northwest 46th Street and 30th Avenue, more than 30 years ago. She said her niece was 6-months-old when she died from leukemia. She was buried at Lincoln.

"She's not even marked," Timothee said. "I didn't even see her grave, but I felt as if my mission is not done because we're going to have to clean this up."

Timothee started doing a little research. She learned everyone buried at Lincoln Memorial Park is black, including lynching victims. Miami's first black millionaire, Dana Albert Dorsey, is interred in one of the cemetery's two mausoleums.

"We have so much history in here," Timothee said. "I need the community to help. I need to talk to the mayor. I don't know who to call, so I called Layron."

Lincoln Memorial Park is a privately owned cemetery. Estimates put the number of people buried there at as many as 20,000. Ellen Johnson owned the cemetery for decades until she died from Alzheimer's disease in 2015. The illness not only took its toll on Johnson's health, but the condition of the cemetery.

Johnson's niece, Jessica Williams, now owns Lincoln.

"When I first got here, and my auntie had passed away, I was hurt. I was devastated," Williams said.

Local 10 News spoke with her inside the cemetery. During the conversation, a visitor who came to pay her respects expressed her frustrations with the condition of the graveyard and confronted Williams.

"It shouldn't be like this here," said Paulette Jackson, whose grandmother, aunt and other relatives are buried at Lincoln. "I think it's wrong, and it's sad that our ancestors are out here like this and nobody gives a damn about it."

Williams was emotionally shaken by the exchange, but said she's heard the comments before.

Williams said all she can do is listen. "I'm only one person. I'm only one human being."

But Williams said she has a vision.

"In an ideal world, it's going to be beautiful," she said. "All the graves are going to be painted. I want to set up a museum inside to show the history of this place. Everything takes time, and this is definitely going to take time."

It will also take people willing to help. Moments after we spoke with Williams, so did Timothee. Minutes later, the two were exchanging contact information.

"There's too much history here," Timothee said. "My goal is to see a new Lincoln Memorial Park."

Little did Timothee know, an army was growing, and she would become one of its new recruits.

"Getting the narrative right is very important to us," said Lynn Bauer, chairwoman of the Coral Gables Museum. "Who, what, where, when and we did."

The museum opened an exhibit on Lincoln Memorial in August. It was scheduled to close in November, but was extended through February.

"The history of the cemetery is fascinating," said John Allen, executive director of the museum.

Allen explained the cemetery's origins. He explained how Kelsey Pharr, a black man, was the first licensed mortician in the state of Florida, south of St. Augustine. During those days, whenever a black person was lynched, Pharr would get a call.

He said Pharr, who also owned a funeral home, started burying those lynching victims in a quadrant of land at Northwest 46th Street and 30th Avenue.

He eventually bought the property, establishing Lincoln Memorial Park in 1924.

Ledgers from the funeral home, though, show the burials date back to 1915.

There are 200 veterans -- from the Civil War all the way to Desert Storm -- interred at Lincoln. Four of their markers are on display at the museum, after they were discovered stacked at the back of the cemetery.

The first black female Florida legislator, Gwen Cherry, is also buried at Lincoln. As is D.A. Dorsey, Miami's first black millionaire.

"[Dorsey] bought a little island in the Biscayne Bay for blacks to be able to swim and enjoy the beach," Allen said. "He was able to sell that little island to Carl Fisher. It's now Fisher Island."

When Pharr died, the cemetery was left to his goddaughter, Ellen Johnson. Johnson took charge in the '60s, and remained until her death in 2015. She left the cemetery to her niece.

"This is the history of South Florida," Bauer said. "These are the people who built our railroad, our hotels, our buildings, our roads. They deserve a final resting place that's nicer than what it is right now."

Bauer said museum officials knew there was something they could do, so they started making calls to volunteers and community groups.

Their preservation work soon became a work of transformation as they attacked the cemetery, cleaning, weeding and repainting vaults plot by plot, section by section.

"It means a lot to me," said Williams during one of those cleanup events.

"This place was the most beautiful cemetery for the African-American community for many, many, many years," said Brandy Wells, a volunteer working to create a foundation for the cemetery.

Museum researchers estimate anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people are buried at Lincoln. Local 10 News' cameras were there as 2 feet of dirt were cleared, revealing a newly discovered gravesite underneath.

The story of the cemetery continues to be unearthed.

"We can see into the future, every time we do it," Bauer said. "The good will spreads and people realize it's a necessary project to take on."

The cemetery is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. Local 10 News is told efforts continue to add it to state and local registries.

Volunteers plan to double their workload. Their cleanups were normally held on the second Saturday of the month. Cleanups will also be held on every fourth Saturday of the month.

A GoFundMe page has been established to help raise money for the continued cleanups.

The Coral Gables Museum exhibit runs through Feb. 17.

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