Viewer tip to I-TEAM leads to cleanup at crumbling cemetery

Exposed vaults, dangerous debris at Mount Olive Cemetery

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – "A scene out of Nightmare on Elm Street." That's how Eddrick Harrell describes Mount Olive Cemetery.

Harrell contacted the I-TEAM for help, asking us to investigate why the Northwest Jacksonville cemetery is falling apart and what can be done to clean it up. 

"I pass by here on my way to work every day and people need to see that this is not the norm. This is not the way a cemetery should look," he said.

While meeting us at the cemetery, Harrell shows us three, large cement vaults, which are sitting on top of the grass. Several others are sticking out of the ground.  In Duval County, all caskets must be placed in vaults before they are buried, and they are required to be placed at least 12 inches under the surface of the ground. 

Harrell, who grew up in the neighborhood off 45th Street and Moncrief Road, says the vaults have looked like this for years. 

"From the looks of it, no one cares," he said. 

The I-TEAM also found several headstones that are broken and missing. Perhaps the most disturbing sight we discovered is a vault lid that's cracked wide open from a tree that fell. 

You can see the casket inside, which is in pieces. 

Jacksonville City Councilwoman Katrina Brown, who represents the district in which the cemetery is located, agreed to meet the I-TEAM at the cemetery. 

"It's really sad, Jennifer, and it really hurts my heart to see this. When you hear about stuff, but actually see it, it really breaks my heart," Brown said as we looked at the damaged vault. 

Advocates for Northwest Jacksonville neighborhoods, Denise Hunt and Ben Frazier accompanied Brown and were deeply concerned about the condition of the cemetery. 

"This is disgusting. This is vile. They need to fix this ASAP.  It is a disturbance of our sacred burial ground for African- Americans," said Hunt.  "I'm getting sick just looking at it.  It's making me want to vomit," she said. 

'We must do something different. The argument, that it has been this way for a long time, is a no-brainer," said Frazier. "The question is, what are we going to do about it now?"

VIDEO: I-TEAM walk-through of Mount Olive Cemetery

The group was appalled to see what we showed them next.  We discovered what looks like an old sewer pipe uncovered next to a grave.  It is about three feet deep with muddy water in the bottom. 

"This is unsafe, a very unsafe issue," Brown said.

"We got children next door, what if a child fell in there, out here playing? You'd never know he was in there," said Hunt.

There is an apartment complex across the street from the cemetery and St. Claire Evans Academy Elementary School is next to the apartments.

Brown says the problem is the cemetery was abandoned years ago, so there is no owner to hold responsible for the repairs. 

We found many of the headstones date back to the late 1800s and several military veterans are buried in the dilapidated cemetery. 

According to a newspaper article published seven years ago, Mount Olive Cemetery is one of four graveyards -- once a well-groomed resting place -- for wealthier African-American Jacksonville residents.

They were owned by A.L. Lewis, who was the city's first African-American millionaire back at the turn of the 20th century.  We were unable to track down the most recent owner.

A property search on the city of Jacksonville's property appraiser's website indicates it was sold in 1954, but does not reveal the name of the buyer.    

The city of Jacksonville agreed a few years ago to take over maintenance at the cemetery, which only includes lawn care and trash.  Brown said those services are only performed between April and November. 

When we interviewed Brown in March, she called the city's public works department right after and had a crew cover the hole until dirt could be brought in to fill it.  That has now been done.  Contractors were also sent to the cemetery to mow the lawn and to pick up the trash. 

Brown said a contractor has now been hired to remove the tree stump and cover the damaged graves. Still uncertain though, is if the city will be able to allocate the money needed to rebury the vaults sitting on the grass. 

"I am going to work real hard to see how I can help, but it takes 10 [city council] votes, working with the mayor's office and working with state legislators. We're going to have to rally the community up and voice their concerns," Brown said.

She urges concerned citizens to call the city council and the mayor's office by dialing 630-CITY (2489).

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