The life of a cemetery isn’t always as sure as the souls who lay their bodies down in its ground.
“Walk right there,” Raymond Reese said, pointing out a soft spot in the earth. “That’s a grave. There’s graves all over here like this.”
Taking wide, deliberate steps, Reese waded through brush and briars. Resting in a tangle of growth, the cemetery is receding into nature and time.
Kneeling down to clear the brush, Reese revealed near-hundred-year-old headstones.
He pointed out unmarked plots of the poor and a small circular clearing he recently thinned for a visitor.
“She was crying, she said ‘I’m trying to go back there and clean my mama’s grave, but I’m scared of snakes,” Reese explained. “People just don’t give a damn about the dead.”
Continuing across the cemetery, the ground suddenly untangles. The grass is trim and thorns no longer threaten the path. This is the portion that borders Reese’s backyard.
“It takes me 30 minutes to clean,” he said. “I’ve been cutting behind that wall for twenty-something damn years.”
When Reese moved into this Pensacola neighborhood in the mid-1970s, Magnolia Cemetery was still open. It closed shortly thereafter when the it ran out of available space.
Located on the corner of Brainard and A streets, the cemetery holds a special place within Pensacola’s African American community. From the late 1800s until well into last century, Magnolia was the only place in the city where black people could be buried.
“There’s not a black in Pensacola—originally from Pensacola—who don’t have a family member here,” Reese said.
Aside from small sections that abut the properties of helpful homeowners, the cemetery has in recent years been left to the mercies of the land. Now, cracked and caved-in tombs lie lonely in a forgotten jungle.
“It’s a mess, I tell you, man,” Reese said.
Next to the cemetery, in Reese’s backyard, is a small pink garden shed. Some old Ashton Hayward-for-mayor signs lie inside. Reese is active in local politics—“Ashton wouldn’t never got in there if it wasn’t for my black ass”—and has been trying to get the city to take a role in cleaning up the cemetery. The Mayor hears from him regularly.
“I shouldn’t have to be doing this,” Reese said, motioning toward his cleared patch of cemetery. “I told Ashton Monday, it’s a damn shame I have to be doing this. You know Ashton ain’t gonna say too damn much—‘I’m working on it,’ or some s— like that.”
Reese’s mission for a clean cemetery is stronger than any political tie. Former city councilwoman Jewell Canada Wynn found that out when she came looking for his support during her re-election campaign.
“She comes knocking on my door. I said, ‘What you coming up here for?’” Reese recalled, explaining how he feels the councilwoman’s opponent, Brian Spencer, has also failed to deal with the issue of the cemetery since winning a City Council seat. “He squawked one damn time and I ain’t heard nothing since.”
Spencer, whose district the cemetery lies in, is aware of the problem. He just doesn’t have a quick solution.
Traditionally, the city cites overgrown properties with code-enforcement notices. But there are currently no notices filed against the cemetery.
“Cemeteries are different situations,” said Steve Wineki, with the city’s code enforcement department. “You know, who owns the cemeteries themselves?”
That is the haunting question with Magnolia. Who owns it?
“In this case, the property owners of record are Talbot Chapel AME Church and the A.M.E. Zion Burial Association, and they are responsible for the upkeep of these parcels,” said Travis Peterson, the Mayor’s spokesman.
But, if it were that simple, the city would probably have a stack of notices filed against the property owners. And it doesn’t.
“I think that some title searches need to be done to clearly define the ownership of these properties,” Spencer said.
Escambia County lists the cemetery—a long rectangular lot—as two separate parcels. The northern parcel is listed as belonging to A.M.E. Zion Burial Association, and the southern parcel is listed as belonging to Cemetery Talbert Chapel. There is no additional sales data on either parcel.
“We don’t have any information on there because it’s so old,” said Vanessa Whitman, down at the Escambia County Property Appraiser’s office.
She suggested a trip to the county records department might be in order.
“I’ve been down there a couple of times,” Whitman said. “It really is cool—goes all the way back to the 1800s.”
Diving deeper than recent history requires venturing into the records department’s mountain of microfiche and miles of bound volumes. Everything is yellow with age and smells like a library.
The county records department is a floor-to-ceiling maze of information. But that maze didn’t reveal many answers about the cemetery.
The only mention of Magnolia during recent past was when the city passed an ordinance in February 1990 to abandon a portion of road that cuts through the middle of the cemetery. Other than that, the only reference is in a thick binder listing land transactions from the late 1800s.
Written in ornate script in a beautiful old hardback on huge parchment-esque pages are the details of the cemetery’s birth. On Oct. 22, 1897, Margaret E. King deeded the property to the A.M.E. Zion B. Assn. She had apparently done this originally in 1896, but that deed had been lost and needed replacing.
A.M.E. Zion—African Methodist Episcopal—is a national organization. Locally, a collective of 11 churches belong to the Florida branch, with that collective also part of a regional Alabama-Florida group.
Rev. James French heads the Florida collective and also is pastor at the local Houser Memorial Church. As far as he’s concerned, the churches do not own Magnolia Cemetery.
“That’s a question up for discussion now,” French said. “The members of my conference have indicated to me that they don’t think we own it.”
The conference has coordinated cleanups in recent years, but those efforts were apparently charitable and not performed out of legal obligation. They have now stepped away from the property until the matter is settled.
“We are in the process of securing a title lawyer,” French said.
There is still an A.M.E. Zion Burial Association. French heads its board. But the minister argues that the current body is completely different than the A.M.E. Burial Association of years past, specifically the one listed as owner of the cemetery.
“As far as we can see it, it’s just been abandoned property,” French said.
Although the cemetery is divided into two parcels, with two separate owners listed, both owners list the same Cantonment address. The house at that address is listed as belonging to Houser Memorial.
According to Nathan Bass, chairman of Talbot Chapel’s board of trustees, the Florida conference of A.M.E. Zion took over caring for the entire cemetery a few years back. It was apparently a decision handed down from higher up in the organization.
Bass sits on the burial association and said the group was currently in the process of untangling ownership issues.
“That’s what Frenchy’s suppose to be getting straight,” Bass said. “They’ve been saying this here—it’s been going on about two years—they’ve been researching it to see who actually owns the cemetery.”
The Talbot chairman was under the impression that A.M.E. Zion would be caring for the cemetery until ownership was resolved.
“They’re supposed to be maintaining it until they figure out who it belongs to,” Bass said. “It looks pretty rough to me.”
Reese has given up on church officials. He’s hoping the city will step in. And while nature continues to reclaim the cemetery and A.M.E. Zion attempts to untangle the grounds’ roots, local officials point to contested ownership records and wait out the mystery.
“You know, thank God for Raymond Reese,” said Lumon May, who is running for the District 3 seat on the Escambia County Commission.
May recently stopped by Magnolia Cemetery to speak with Reese about the land. If elected, this issue—nestled in a District 3 neighborhood—would fall into May’s lap.
“I think it’ll be cleaned up before I’m ever elected,” the young hopeful said, surveying the dense cemetery. “I hope so.”
If not, he’ll probably be hearing from Reese.
“He ain’t gonna pull no hanky-panky,” Reese said. “Lumon’s gonna do right cause I’m gonna be on top of his butt.”
For now, Reese will continue pressing his case with the current bench of officials. He’s already planning another visit to the Mayor’s office.
“I hope I don’t have no damn heart attack,” Reese said, “but I’m gonna wear their ass out.”