‘It’s hurtful’: Family of Black veteran buried at overgrown Jacksonville cemetery call for cleanup

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After News4JAX reported that members of a Jacksonville church said they feel a now-overgrown African American cemetery in Jacksonville has been neglected and forgotten, a Georgia family reached out and said their loved one’s gravesite was among those in deplorable condition.

Members of the Leon Holland family said that Holland, who served in the United States Air Force, is just one of their family members buried at the St. Nicholas Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery in Spring Park. They said in a military city like Jacksonville, more needs to be done to honor the men and women who served.

The place where Holland rests is now covered in weeds, trees and trash.

“There are stories that are buried beneath the rubble and in the weeds that need to come out. This is not only a historic site, but this is a holy site,” said family member Sean Leon Holland.

Church leaders said they need guidance from the City of Jacksonville after the site was designated a historical landmark. They want to make sure they are able to properly preserve the history and also have questions about access for family members and parking.

Sean Leon Holland, who is named after his uncle, along with Kellie Holland said Leon Holland is buried next to their grandmother Essie May Holland in the historic landmark along with more than 150 other Black Americans including veterans of World II dating back to the early 1900s.

“These veterans that are buried at Bethel cemetery deserve the same attention and the same honor as other veterans who gave their life for the betterment of this country. It is a shame and it’s hurtful,” Sean Leon Holland said.

The cemetery, which is owned by the St. Nicholas Bethel Baptist Church, recently received a designation as one of Jacksonville’s oldest African American cemeteries. But the grounds are currently fenced in and boxed in by the Stonemount Village apartment complex. There’s no access to the gravesites which are littered with trash.

Family members said they’re still looking for guidance from the City of Jacksonville about how they should proceed in getting the grounds cleaned up. The cemetery is private property owned by the church. Kelly Holland said the current conditions are upsetting to the entire family.

“My father is up there in age now, but if he was physically able to get down to Jacksonville, or to even be a part of this phone conversation, my dad would be very upset. He’d be hurt because they’re very close and that whole community in Jacksonville back then very, very close,” Kellie Holland said.

News4JAX spoke with at-large Councilmember Matt Carlucci who said he’s hoping to coordinate a meeting between the City of Jacksonville’s Historic planning department and the public works department to gather any appropriate resources to see if officials at City Hall can help.

A local chaplain from the Florida Baptist Relief Ministry is also volunteering to help in the clean-up process.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.