Unmarked cemetery on Jacksonville University campus highlights lost Black history

A piece of nearly forgotten history on the campus of Jacksonville University: a once-overlooked African American burial ground.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you’ve ever been on the Jacksonville University’s campus, there’s one piece of history you’re almost guaranteed to overlook, an African-American cemetery from a time period shortly after the Civil War.

The old cemetery no longer has any headstones. They have all been gone for decades.

The cemetery was only discovered by chance in the late 1980s when an employee at JU happened to discover the lone remaining headstone. That headstone was for William Johnson, a former black soldier in the Civil War.

“He was a slave here in Jacksonville. And on his enlistment papers, he lists Yellow Bluff as his birthplace. Which is as you probably know the place right under the Dames Point Bridge on the north end,” said retired JU History Professor Craig Buettinger.

Buettinger says Johnson’s headstone is also gone now, saying someone stole it around 1990. All that remains is an overgrown field with trees that the University has protected by a chain surrounding it so no developments happen on the roughly acre of land.

“Basically it just became as far as I know an overgrown forgotten area,” said Buettinger.

Buettinger said it’s unclear how many people are buried in the cemetery, telling News4Jax it would have started shortly after the Civil War.

“This is an African-American cemetery that dates back to around 1873. We really don’t have a lot of knowledge about it,” he said.

Beuttinger said research shows it was operated by an African-American church in the area that was no longer around by the early 1900s.

Jacksonville University published a story on the cemetery in 2019 in its University Magazine.

Forgotten African-American cemeteries are not a surprise to former Jacksonville City Councilwoman Denise Lee who was part of a fight to restore many of them during her time on the council in the 1980s.

“There are probably other burial sites of African-Americans that we have not discovered yet,” said Lee when News4Jax asked if she had heard about the cemetery on JU’s campus. Lee along with other local lawmakers in the 1980s fought to get the city to take over many old cemeteries that had been abandoned by former private owners.

“There were several members of the council that did not want it approved. They did not want the city involved in the cemetery business. But at the end of the day if there hadn’t been segregation then we wouldn’t have had to go and get the city,” said Lee.

The City of Jacksonville still budgets money to rehabilitate old African-American cemeteries.

Here are some details from the City of Jacksonville on the current capital budget proposal:

The mayor’s proposed 2019-2023 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) included a 3-year, $10.8 million program to restore and reclaim the historical significance of neglected Pinehurst, Memorial, Sunset, Hillside and Mt. Olive cemeteries.

There was $1.2 million budgeted specifically for Pinehurst Cemetery Restoration in the mayor’s proposed CIP. It includes the establishment of fence boundaries, a roadway through the facility, grave restoration and vegetation management.

Memorial Cemetery Assessment/Restoration - $3,005,900

Sunset Cemetery Assessment/Restoration - $1,550,000

Old City Cemetery Assessment/Restoration - $1,150,000

Hillside Cemetery Assessment/Restoration - $230,000

Mt. Olive Cemetery Assessment/Restoration - $3,634,000

News4Jax also spoke with people who work in local historical societies who said that maintaining old cemeteries is not a cheap venture and difficult to do because many were once privately owned and they often get abandoned when those owners eventually go out of business.

In many cases, no records are kept.

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.