By James Donlon
Nestled in the shadow of the expressway ramps that connect to the Mathews Bridge is one of Jacksonville’s oldest and most complicated history museums. The rows of hand-carved headstones and overgrown fences tell a story that lies six feet below the surface.
The graves of Confederate soldiers are just feet from those of prominent black figures from the community. The cemetery is segregated by race and consequently by quality. The Old City cemetery has roots in segregation and the history of black citizens of Jacksonville.
The entrance prominently identifies the lot as sacred grounds. “Old City Cemetery” is spelled out in cast iron metal, arching between shallow brick walls that hold the land above the street.
Elevated, the brick walls and archway hide most of what resides behind them.
The first half of the land is lush with eloquent headstones, grey and full, unbroken. As the journey deeper into the grounds continues, the detail and craftsmanship wains.
The back of the cemetery is barren. Sunken graves, unmarked headstones. Stepping off the pathway onto the back half of the property is a dangerous and uneven journey.
The stirring part of this scene is the history it harbors.
The many differences of Old City Cemetery’s occupants are a haunting entity onto themselves. But many of the buried share two characteristics; graves overgrown by nature and stories overgrown by time.
The first documented burial at Old City Cemetery was in 1827. The last burial was in 1998.
“When you walk through the iron gates of the Old City Cemetery, you’re strolling through at least 165 years of Jacksonville history,” said Sandy Strickland, a reporter who writes a history column for the Florida Times-Union.
The grounds are guarded by a Jacksonville police officer who lives on the property. The stories of the cemetery are guarded by preservation groups and activists.
One of whom is Adrienne Burke, the former executive director of the Riverside Avondale Preservation. The organization is “an advocate for active preservation of our neighborhood’s historic assets.”
“The cemetery is actually in pretty good shape relative to other historic cemeteries I have seen, and others in the city in particular,” Burke said.
Burke, along with a team at Riverside Avondale Preservation, has collected the history of Old City Cemetery and its occupants.
Established as Jacksonville’s primary burial grounds in 1852, the then “City” Cemetery was thought to be built on a Native-American burial ground.
Capt. Charles Wiley, a steamboat captain, and his wife donated the property to the town in 1827. Initially the land was called Wiley Cemetery until the name was changed. As Jacksonville grew, so did the need for gravesites and more land was acquired.
Usage of Old City Cemetery declined after Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1881.
In 2012, according to the Times-Union, the cemetery was vandalized. Headstones were shattered and the pieces had been scattered across the property. Some of the vandalized stones dated back to the 1800s.
Most of the history of the cemetery pertains to those buried there. Race, poverty and wealth are traits the buried leave on the surface.
“The size of their memorials and the quality of their gravestones may differ, but their bodies lie in the same soil,” wrote Strickland in 2017 for the Florida Times-Union.
Clara and Eartha White are a pair of the more recognizable names engraved on a headstone sitting in Old City Cemetery. The mother/daughter pair were black Jacksonville humanitarians and founders of the Clara White Mission.
The Clara White Mission was founded in 1904 and still today offers meals, housing, and assistance to the homeless population of Jacksonville.
Another interesting individual buried at the cemetery is Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi. Originally from Ghana, Kofi founded her own church in the United States. Followers called her “Mother Kofi” and she spent time in cities like Detroit and Chicago, preaching the importance of religion and keeping in touch with African roots.
Accusations of corruption, fraud and theft followed the princess as she traveled the country and grew in popularity.
Princess Kofi was eventually assassinated in 1928 while preaching in Miami.
Her followers built a small white mausoleum where she is still buried today.
Old City Cemetery is also home to Gov. Francis Fleming. Elected 1889, Fleming was a Democrat and segregationist. He enacted poll taxes and disenfranchisement techniques in Reconstruction-era Florida.
Alexander Darnes was the first black doctor in Jacksonville.
Born into slavery, Darnes witnessed the Civil War. Prior to emancipation, Darnes was the property of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, the last general to surrender to the Union in the Civil War.
After attending medical school in the North, Darnes returned to Jacksonville to aid sick citizens during a massive yellow fever outbreak.
As for the other 500-plus graves, there are just some stories that go unknown.
Today, the cemetery is an example of the effects of American history. Despite its age, Old City Cemetery still stands as one of Jacksonville’s oldest and most prominent reminder of our past.