Abandoned & Forgotten: Moncrief Road Cemeteries
Closing in on 900,000 residents, Jacksonville is a bustling Sunbelt city with a bright future. However, a visit to its Moncrief Road cemetery district suggests it is a community that does not respect or value its African-American heritage or history. Once operated and maintained by Florida's first African-American millionaire, the current condition of this cemetery district makes it one of the most disturbing places in the city.
According to a National Register of Historic Places registration form created in 1997, this Moncrief Road cemetery district was established following the Great Fire of 1901 due to there being few cemeteries for Jacksonville’s African-American community during early 20th century. Privately owned by the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and the Memorial Cemetery Association, it is believed that this district reflects the social history of the community as well as its religious attitudes towards death and dying during the first half of the 20th century. Designated as local landmark sites by the City of Jacksonville in 1992, oral tradition establishes that African burial customs from west and central Africa were practiced here.
Situated north of the intersection of Moncrief Road and Edgewood Avenue, the surrounding environment was a rural setting known for its farms and pine woods in 1900. At that time, African Americans represented 57% of the city’s population. In the decade following the Great Fire of 1901, the city’s population nearly doubled, creating the need for additional burial grounds in the segregated city. In October 1909, that need was met when a plat for Memorial Cemetery was completed on land owned by Leo K. Benedict, with Abraham Lincoln Lewis listed as the Secretary and Manager for the cemetery office, which was located at the Afro-American Life Insurance Company.
Left: A.L. Lewis, Right: The Afro-American Life Insurance Company at 101 East Union Street.
In 1901, Lewis helped to organize the Afro-American Industrial Benefit Association which later became the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Assisting Booker T. Washington to create the National Negro Business League in 1901 to “promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro”, Lewis was well known for being the state’s first African-American millionaire and for his philanthropic efforts in the black community. This included establishing Nassau County’s American Beach oceanfront resort and the prestigious Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville, and his generous gifts to Edward Waters College, Bethune-Cookman University, Florida Memorial College and Florida A&M University.
In 1911, ownership of Memorial Cemetery was transferred to the Memorial Cemetery Association, with Lewis serving as the association’s president. As Jacksonville continued to rapidly expand in population, so did the need for additional burial grounds to serve the African-American community. As a result, the Memorial Cemetery Association purchased additional land for Sunset Cemetery in April 1913 and platted Pinehurst Cemetery in 1928. In 1936, James H. Lewis, his son, took over the presidency of the insurance company and the Memorial Cemetery Association was dissolved with the Lewis family retaining ownership of the burial grounds.
Over the years, the center of Memorial and Sunset became “fashionable” places for burials while Pinehurst was considered to be an “ordinary” location. With the end of segregation, the cemeteries and other African-American cemeteries within the Moncrief Cemetery District declined in a similar manner as inner city communities did across the country. Owned, operated by and long affiliated with the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, Memorial, Sunset and Pinehurst cemeteries were negatively impacted as the company found itself in a struggle to survive in a desegregated environment. As they declined, they were avoided for newer cemeteries and in some cases, families relocated the remains of loved ones to more well-tended cemeteries.
In 1986, ownership of the cemeteries was transferred to the Memorial Cemetery, Inc. Four years later, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company closed its doors for good. By the time, the 1997 National Register of Historic Places registration form was created for the district, it was believed that the Memorial Cemetery, Inc. was defunct. 20 years have passed since the incomplete application to the National Register of Historic Places was created for the cemetery district. However, this photo tour of Memorial and Sunset cemeteries suggest what should be a scene of tranquility has become visual place of horror after decades without sufficient maintenance and upkeep.