Florida Humanities Council Promotes Awareness of Pensacola’s Historic African American Cemetries

John the Baptist Church has received a grant from The Florida Humanities Council to promote awareness of the historic significance of Pensacola’s historic African American cemeteries. Public partners include the UWF Archaeology Institute, Florida Public Archaeology Institute (FPAN), UWF Department of History, UWF Historic Trust, and UWF Archives and West Florida History Center. The African American Heritage Society is also a public partner supporting the “By These Hands: Vernacular Markers of Pensacola’s Historic African American Cemeteries” project.

Vernacular cemetery markers are usually hand constructed by local artisans or individuals using locally available materials. They also reflect local cultural traditions. Everyday objects are often employed to create design motifs. Vernacular markers are seldom signed by the maker. However, markers by individual artisans can often be identified based on materials, architectural style, and design motif. The project will bring the stories of artisans and individuals to the public as part of a yearlong project to highlight Pensacola’s African-American vernacular markers. A public conference on vernacular markers will be held September 17-19, 2015 (at no charge to attendees). Research will be available to the public via an interactive web site hosted by FPAN.  For this project, UWF students and faculty are researching three cemeteries: Montgomery (John the Baptist), Magnolia Cemetery, and the AME Zion Cemetery. Hopefully, the artisans who made a number of similar markers at all three cemeteries will be identified.  Persons who have knowledge of individuals who may have been crafting markers for aid societies/fraternal organizations in the cemeteries between 1900-1930, are encouraged to contact John the Baptist Church at (850) 438-8223 or historicjohnthebaptistchurch@gmail.com and pass along information that may be of assistance to the overall project.

Project principals are also seeking individuals who have copies of, or clippings of, individual articles  from “The Colored Citizen,” an African-American newspaper published in Pensacola from 1914-1958. Anyone who has copies of or clippings from this newspaper is asked to contact by phone or e-mail the following two persons:  Dean DeBolt at 850-474-2213, ddebolt@uwf.edu or Stephanie Johnson at 850-474-2794, sjohnson@uwf.edu  at the University Archives and West Florida History Center (UWF John C. Pace Library), regular hours: Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (closed on Saturday and Sunday). The material you bring will be scanned and added to the online database of the “Colored Citizen Collection.” There is no charge and your papers will be returned to you. By participating, you will be helping to bring the past to life through the pages of our historic community newspaper.

Like all historic cemeteries, Pensacola’s historic African-American burial grounds are outdoor museums that reflect cultural attitudes and adaptations. The vernacular markers that dot early 20th century African-American cemeteries in Pensacola are not merely physical marks on the landscape – they have a powerful story to tell about the African-American community as a whole.

The story of Pensacola’s vernacular cemetery markers encompasses individuals, occupations, ideologies, and expression. Through a series of professional talks and tours and through the development of interpretative materials, the story of Pensacola’s African American cemeteries will begin to emerge.

By bringing this story forward we will not just be sharing the story of Pensacola’s historic African-American cemeteries. We will also be weaving the threads of our story into an expanding tapestry: one that tells the story of Florida’s historic African American burial grounds. Looking beyond local significance, Florida’s historic African American cemeteries are threads in the greater story that link us, as Floridians, to a regional, national, and world tapestry.

Moving forward, you may be noticing changes to the physical landscapes. Although not part of the By These Hands… grant funded project, much activity is happening on the physical landscapes of our community cemeteries. Volunteers can be seen working at AME Zion and Magnolia on a regular basis. The Escambia County Board of County Commissioners is helping with landscape needs as well as supporting some marker repair. The City of Pensacola is also lending substantial resources to support volunteer efforts at the two sites. Tree work is on tap in the upcoming weeks as well.

Keep Pensacola Beautiful has gone above and beyond in their volunteer efforts. The UWF Archaeology Institute is also lending a hand. The Institute is providing volunteer service and oversight on a temporary basis and funding some repairs to markers at three cemeteries. The historic cemeteries of our community are invaluable resources—they tell our story in ways that cannot be told by any other means.

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