Michelle Rutledge (left) and Rosa Rutledge have attended St. Peter Baptist Church for most of their lives. The cemetery across from the church is the final resting ground for many of their relatives. (Arlette Garcia/WUFT News)

Former slaves and others are buried at this Archer cemetery. A group is trying to preserve its history

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St. Peter’s Cemetery is an anchor for Michelle Rutledge’s identity.

The cemetery is in front of St. Peter Baptist Church in the rural neighborhood of St. Peter — a historically Black community in unincorporated Archer. It is the final resting ground for Rutledge’s father, grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents.

A lifelong resident and St. Peter-St. Paul Community Council member, Rutledge said families who settled during the period before slavery ended founded the neighborhood. The pharmacologist said local cemeteries offer a way for others to learn about its legacy.

“If you look at African Americans in general, a lot of that history is not recorded, it wasn’t captured, or is it was lost in some type of way,” Rutledge said. “So we’re saying, ‘Look, we actually are still here. We have an opportunity to preserve that.’”

The Alachua County Historical Commission has documented 438 graves at St. Peter’s, which can be traced back to 1886. Church deacons, war veterans, former slaves are all buried there.

The oldest relative Rutledge has found at the cemetery is her great-great grandmother Lugenia Moss, who was born in 1889.

“To be able to say, ‘Yes, I know my great-great grandmother, she’s there, or my grandmother, she’s here,’” Rutledge said, “that’s my anchor. It’s kind of my foundation.”

Michelle Rutledge says Lugenia Moss, her great-great grandmother, is the oldest relative she has located at St. Peter’s Cemetery. (Arlette Garcia/WUFT News)

Florida is working on recognizing and maintaining historic Black cemeteries across the state.

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the creation of a 10-member task force responsible for researching neglected and abandoned such cemeteries. The task force began meeting in August and must produce a report to the state with findings and a strategy plan by Jan. 1.

The bill describes how discriminatory practices led to improper record keeping and preservation of Black burial grounds. A Tampa Bay Times report has led to increased attention on abandoned cemeteries following the unearthing of Zion Cemetery in Tampa Heights.

The Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources approved a historical marker for St. Peter’s cemetery in September. Through a collaboration with the county’s historical commission, the community council drafted the text to be displayed on the marker.

Rutledge said one line will read ‘St. Peter’s cemetery, just a stop onto glory, oh won’t it be grand.’” She added: “‘Oh, won’t it be grand’ is important because it is a spiritual song that reflects our culture, and it reflects our heritage. In the African American community, funerals and death are seen as a homegoing. It’s a celebration.”

The council’s goal is to continue preserving the history and culture of the community. Through partnerships with the Florida Public Archaeology Network, which is represented on the state task force, the council has done cemetery cleanups and offered ancestry research workshops.

Nigel Rudolph, archaeologist for the network, has led the events at St. Peter’s Cemetery to teach community members about headstone preservation and maintenance.

“They built it all,” Rudolph said. “The way I look at headstones is these are the last physical representations of these human beings that built the world that we are on.”

Rudolph specializes in studying and documenting Black cemeteries across central Florida, and said there are more than 30 of them in Alachua County. He’s working to get St. Peter’s Cemetery properly categorized as African American instead of white on the Florida Master Site File.

“People that don’t think too hard about it probably wouldn’t care, but it is not a minor error,” Rudolph said. “It’s an erasure of history.”

He also said these efforts should raise awareness to protect the cemetery and community.

“If we get eyes on these places, we can illustrate the value of this history as a massive component to the greater history of the state and the United States,” he said. “That’s going to help anchor them in.”

Gerie Crawford, president of the community council and a retired assistant director of the Alachua County Department of Court Services, said St. Peter housed those fleeing from the Rosewood massacre in 1923 – including her family members. She remembers her great-uncle sharing stories about hiding in the woods while trying to get to safety before reaching Archer.

All of Crawford’s paternal relatives – as well as her mother, sister and brother – are buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery.

“I can go there and see my history,” she said. “It’s important to honor your ancestors, because without them, where would you be? Who would you be?”

Crawford said historical markers such as the one at the cemetery help to give places that would other be forgotten the recognition they deserve.

“The next time you may want to look up something about Archer, there’s something that you can go to that can help tell our story,” she said.

Rosa Rutledge, Michelle Rutledge’s mother, is the seventh chief of the Female Protective Society – the oldest African American women’s organization in the county. It was founded in 1904 because of a need for proper burial policies and services in the community.

“We didn’t just wait on others to help us, we helped ourselves,” Rosa Rutledge said.

With four divisions across the county, including one in Archer, the organization has expanded its services to scholarships and a community building for funerals, weddings and other gatherings.

“I love to say that it is history that is over 100 years old,” Rosa Rutledge said. “The needs are pretty much the same, so we continue to take care of them the same way they did back in 1900s.”

About Arlette Garcia

Arlette is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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