Local volunteers dedicated to maintaining 2 of the oldest Black cemeteries in Florida inspired by families

West Augustine Improvement Association wins August Positively JAX award

WEST AUGUSTINE, Fla. – This month’s Positively JAX award goes to a group that’s been doing the work since 1956. The West Augustine Improvement Association was founded by local teacher Nellie Meade to make sure that cemeteries in that area were maintained.

It later grew into a neighborhood association, striving to improve the community as a whole. Currently, the group is back to its roots, working to improve two of the oldest cemeteries in Florida.

The Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries have plots that date back to 1879. They are two of the oldest Black cemeteries in the state of Florida with gravesites right outside downtown St. Augustine that have been neglected for years.

“If I want to describe how it really looked before you actually came in, before we actually started. You could have rolled by, you couldn’t even tell that it’s a cemetery,” said Willie Cooper Sr. said, the current West Augustine Improvement Association president.

Cooper said it was so overgrown it looked like the forest, so when the city asked the association to take over the two cemeteries 10 years ago, it just made sense, considering the initial goal in 1956 was to maintain West Augustine cemeteries.

West Augustine Improvement Association wins PosJAX award (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4JAX - All rights reserved.)

For Cooper, it was the story of two sisters who cut a path through the brush to visit their deceased loved ones that motivated him to get to work.

“This grave over here, they actually cut the way in there. And if you take a shot of the fence right over there, it was a path just big enough for you to walk through,” Cooper said. “And it kept coming from over that area all the way over to here where they maintain this. So can you imagine when you walk in here, you got everything all overgrown, and you follow the paths. And this is the only thing that was maintained all around this.”

The sisters later died and were buried beside their family. There are hundreds of graves in the cemetery, some with shattered placards where you can barely make out the name of the person who died. This project will honor the dead and the families who now at least have a place to find peace and closure.

“Our hands are full with just keeping it, maintaining it and keeping it looking decent, especially for those family members who want to come and visit with their loved ones and just kind of sit,” says association historian Thomas Jackson.

Right now, this group of about 50 volunteers has a big responsibility, and preserving history isn’t easy or free. The goal is to do the research to identify the graves and replace as many markers as possible. The new ones cost around $200 each.

“We have the ones we can identify, and then the ones that we replace, and then the ones that we can’t replace, then we will likely do a wall or something. Find out who’s in here, put the name on a wall,” Cooper said.

The founder of this West Augustine Improvement Association that started the work more than 70 years ago would be proud. Her legacy lives on and that is Positively JAX.

For more information about the group, visit https://www.westaugustineimprovementassociation.org/.

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