Monday, March 27, 2017


 The San Sebastian Cemetery Recording Project is now complete! We began this project in October 2015 and had our final field day last month (February 2017). Breaks were taken for summer and for weather (a large break was taken last Fall - thanks Hurricane Matthew!) But, with the help of volunteers, a snap shot of this precarious and amazing sacred space has been recorded.

I'm sure your mind is now swirling with questions! I shall attempt to answer a few of them....

What work was done during the project?
  • 431 - Individual Markers transcribed, measured, assessed and photographed
  • 104 - 10 x 10 Meter Blocks measured and mapped
  • 31 - Field days worked
  • 23 - Volunteers worked in cemetery at some point
San Sebastian Cemetery recording volunteers
What is San Sebastian?
San Sebastian is a cemetery established around 1884 for exclusive use by St. Augustine's African-American Protestant community. It's located a mile outside of St. Augustine's historic district, following the national trend of replacing crowded churchyards with spacious rural cemeteries.

What's important about this cemetery?
San Sebastian contains the graves of many prominent African-American citizens and is home to veterans from the Civil War to the Korean War. At least three Union soldiers are buried here who served in the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War.

One of three Union Army Soldiers buried in San Sebastian Cemetery
There are those buried here who were clearly loved by the community for their contributions:

Mary E. Jordan marker: "Erected by the pupils of New Augustine Colored School"
And, of course, San Sebastian is also home to hundreds more who were not prominent, but still were a beloved friend or family member. You can walk through the cemetery today and see the efforts made to remember them and wonder about their stories:

 Then there are the remnants of other markers that are losing their race with time:

 Several people buried in San Sebastian were born a slave and died free:
Samuel M Sevillie, 1842 - 1917
San Sebastian Cemetery contains about every marker material one can imagine: marble, granite, poured concrete, tiles, coquina, bricks, wood, plants, whelk and conch shells (a tradition traced back to Africa). Wood markers don't last long in Florida, but one small wooden cross is still holding tight in San Sebastian.
Last existing wooden marker in San Sebastian Cemetery
Why did FPAN do the recording project now?

There was a time when San Sebastian was so overgrown you couldn't even set foot in it!  There were several caring volunteer groups over the year that cleaned it up, but of course Florida vegetation will not be kept at bay without constant vigilance. Most recently, in 2013,  the National Guard and Operation Restore Respect (headed by Mark and Teresa Frank) started the enormous project of cleaning up the cemetery. So one reason we recorded it now is because we could!

In addition to physical access, St. John's County took possession of San Sebastian for a couple of years and then transferred the deed to the West Augustine Improvement Association in 2014. In order to assist West Augustine Improvement Association in developing a long-term management,  we provided a base-line picture of the cemetery as it now stands.

Why does San Sebastian look so different from it's next door neighbor?

Although only separated by a fence, San Sebastian is a world away from it's neighbor, Evergreen Cemetery. Evergreen, a privately owned commercial cemetery, is meticulously maintained and registered in the National Registry of Historic Places. Established in 1886, Evergreen became the region's largest white Protestant cemetery during the turn of the century. 
Entrance to Evergreen Cemetery
Although established around the same time as Evergreen, San Sebastian is not on the National Registry. Its ownership was in question for a couple of decades, leaving it effectively abandoned and the victim to overgrowth, neglect and vandalism. The reason for the vast difference between these neighboring cemeteries lies deep in the issues of  institutionalized racism and socio-economics.
Entrance to San Sebastian Cemetery
Before I conclude, I want to thank everyone who volunteered on this project. But I must give a special shout out to one volunteer extraordinary - Beth Hamel who was there almost every field day from the beginning to the end!
Volunteer Extraordinaire

For other articles on San Sebastian Cemetery check out:

Unsung Heroes - St. Augustine Record, Clean Up - St. Augustine Record
Flagler College Gargoyle
FPAN Blog - May 2013
FPAN Blog - June 2014
FPAN Blog - Jan 2016

Text and Images by FPAN Staff; Robbie Boggs 

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