Update on April 8 at 10:48 a.m.: The article was updated to include more accurate descriptions of the Pine Grove Cemetery and to include the name of the church, the Johnson Chapel Missionary Inc., that maintains it.
Spanish moss hangs over the tombstones at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The sun is taking its daily trip across the sky and shadows grace the inscriptions on scattered slabs of marble and marble.
Queenchiku Ngozi, who received a doctorate in business administration and technology, is out with her 9-year-old son, Adé, who holds a pink digital camera while she trucks along with a tripod and muralist Canon. They’re taking black and white photos of the historic African-American cemetery established in 1883.
“I want to tell a story,” she said. “Because to me, each one of these cemeteries is a community.”
Ngozi, a Gainesville artist, scholar and author, travels to historic and sometimes neglected or abandoned African-American cemeteries in Alachua County to take photos. Afterward, she brings those buried back to life through placing painted characters over her photos. Ngozi received a $15,000 grant in 2020 for her project, “Illumination in Darkness,” which she began working on in 2018.
African-American cemeteries established during the Jim Crow era did not receive the same attention and maintenance from the city as white cemeteries did.
In June 2021, Gov. Ron Desantis signed a bill into law to establish a 10-person task force to find abandoned African-American cemeteries in the state and make recommendations to maintain them. The bill outlines that these cemeteries were established without adequate documentation or maitenance regulations due to racial discrimination.
Ngozi’s project aims to call attention to them.
After combing through the pictures captured of each site, she aligns them side-by-side. This step alone can take days. Then Ngozi uses acrylics to paint characters, or subjects she imagines might resemble those who were buried there. Then she digitizes the characters and overlays them on the photographs.
She hopes to complete the final product by May– a published table-top picture book with collages of the many cemetery photos she has transformed. She will have 120 copies of her work to distribute to scholars, museums and libraries across the country.
So far, Ngozi has traveled to about 30 cemeteries of what experts believe to total 40 African-American historical cemeteries in Alachua County.
She said she often finds crumbled headstones overtaken by the Florida environment.
Pine Grove Cemetery is another African-American cemetery established in Gainesville during the Jim Crow era. It’s maintained by a church.
Ngozi has visited Pine Grove for her project, too. She said she witnessed cars driving over gravestones due to a lack of demarcation.
Terri Bailey, 55, founder of the Bailey Learning and Arts Collective, has relatives buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.
“[My relatives] deserve better,” she said.
Bailey believes that because some of the deceased date back to the 1800s it should have a historical marker.
Pine Grove is owned by Johnson Chapel Missionary Inc., leaving the maintenance of the plots up to them. If the church is unable to keep the grounds up to a certain standard, family members often step in.
“The onus is not just on the African-American community, but it is on state and local historical societies and government and those who own those cemetery plots,” Bailey said.
Some of these cemeteries have been maintained either by cities, churches, small organizations or descendants of those buried. About 30% to 40% of the cemeteries are in poor condition, according to Nigel Rudolph, the public archeology coordinator for the Florida Public Archeology Network. Whether the cemeteries were originally maintained by churches, community groups or family members, those in charge of upkeep may have moved or passed away.
“Whoever’s in charge gets old. The elderly–they pass away–and all it takes is one generation of people having a disconnect from that cemetery,” Rudolph said.
Due to the lack of documentation on some of these cemeteries, Rudolph said, they’re open to destruction for use of the land. Jim Crow laws persisted even in death, and held that Black people not be buried with white people. Separate did not mean equal, as many of these cemeteries went without official documentation, and therefore, without protection.
A Tampa Bay Times report in 2020 found that an apartment building had been constructed on top of an African-American cemetery in Tampa Heights. One year later, another cemetery was found at the site of an office building in Clearwater, according to NPR.
Rudolph said fortunately this kind of development isn’t a concern with Alachua County’s historically Black cemeteries.
“The community is holding tight to these sacred spaces,” he said.
Karen Kirkman, a member of the Alachua County Historical Commission, and Rudolph have worked for more than two years to locate and register African-American cemeteries in Alachua County. Rudolph estimates the pair, and others with the commission, have input about 30 of the 40 recorded Alachua-County cemeteries on the Florida Master Site File.
“Sometimes a grave marker, for instance, may be the only evidence that that person ever existed,” Kirkman said. “Especially if you’re talking about somebody who may have been enslaved.”
Kirkman and Rudolph view the cemeteries as outdoor museums that need protection.
The first step in protecting the cemeteries is getting them registered on the Florida Master Site File, said Kirkman. Having this recognition gives the cemeteries a small degree of protection from destruction.
Where businesses might see prime ground for an office building, Ngozi sees a community on the cusp of formally recognizing and honoring its history.
Respect for the dead and paying homage to passed ancestors is a focal point of Ngozi’s spiritual beliefs. She was introduced to African spiritualism at age 14. Her introduction to Orisha, or several West African deities, and Ifà, a spiritual system, taught her that she could have continuous communication with her ancestors. Death is not the end of their stories.
Ngozi explains how this spirituality and ancestral understanding plays into her work:
“In African culture, they talk about nobody really dies,” Ngozi said. “We just move on.”
That’s why the characters Ngozi paints are never sad, but dancing with friends or leaning against a headstone. Death is never a drag, but a new chapter.
The artworks are present on Facebook, YouTube and were displayed for a Black History Month event hosted by the Bailey Learning and Arts Collective.
After finishing her project in Alachua County, she wants to move on to other Florida counties and document those cemeteries.
Beyond their cultural and historical significance, Ngozi believes that any person born has an importance. The neglect of some of these cemeteries negates that.
“Who’s going to these cemeteries and bringing flowers? Who’s going there to even say hello? Who’s giving a prayer?” Ngozi said. “If there’s a heaven, who’s praying to make sure they go?”