Saturday, September 6, 2014

Old Oakland African American Cemetery Eagle Scout Project: Part I
Walking out to the Old Oakland African American Cemtery

What a mouthful.  But I suppose a big project with a lot of effort put behind it deserves a big, wordy title that somehow conveys its importance.  Over a year ago FPAN was contacted to assist an Eagle Scout candidate in developing a project that would give service to the community as well as provide an opportunity for the Scout to demonstrate leadership and management skills.  Eagle Scout Service Projects take a variety of forms and for this project we suggested providing some care and maintenance to a nearly forgotten African American cemetery in the tiny town of Oakland on the southern shores of Lake Apopka.

The cemetery was first used in the 1880s and provided a final resting place to the African American community of Oakland and the surrounding citrus farmlands.  The tiny cemetery was not in an ideal spot, although it is a beautiful one today; the cemetery circles a tiny sinkhole pond that, though it is dry today, has at times held so much water that several of the graves closest to it were completely underwater.  By about 1950 the cemetery had fallen into disuse and an area nearby became the cemetery servicing the small African American community in and around Oakland.  Though some of the older members of the community remembered the cemetery's location, it was largely forgotten about.  Florida's environment took hold; stands of slash pine planted nearby after the failure of citrus crops ran rampant, invasive china berry spread out, fern grew over the floor of the cemetery tall to the waist, and turkey oaks grew and fell over some of the graves.  Today you can visit the cemetery and upon entering the fence gate not see a single grave.  Descendants of those buried in the cemetery still live in Oakland and the surrounding area.  This project especially profits from the work and cooperation of Betty Wade, a resident and descendant of several in the cemetery and one of the driving forces in the preservation of the site.

Just inside the fence gate.  No markers to be seen.

Historic cemeteries are a rapidly vanishing cultural resource in Florida-often forgotten and under constant threats from the environment.  Nick, the Eagle Scout candidate, enjoyed the idea of starting the process of rehabilitating this nearly forgotten site and bringing dignity back to those buried there.  The work at the cemetery will remove large branches and dead trees that are on top of or threatening grave markers.  He has also organized Scouts in the area to assist with a clean up of the property as parts of it were used for dumping over the years.  Finally, Nick has worked to design a new entrance gate for the cemetery which will help interpret the site for future visitors.
Planning at the site for upcoming work.

Stay tuned to see what Nick accomplishes in the coming weeks.  FPAN is proud to be able to provide information and assistance on best practices for historic cemetery clean ups and will be a part of future rehabilitation work at the site.  Indeed, the project benefits from the coming together of other partners as well: The town of Oakland has taken ownership of the property and will continue to maintain it and our old friends the Oakland Nature Preserve will be providing a staging point and work site, as well as a great place to take a break after all the hard work!  We will be sure to update soon!

Nick and Betty Wade stand on the site of the future entrance gate.
Take a look here for a recent article on the upcoming work.  Great write up!

Text and pictures: Kevin Gidusko

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