“Santeria panic” obscures serious problems in black cemeteries in Miami

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MIAMI — Reports in three local newspapers have been focused on neglect and vandalism in some cemeteries here. Only one article stressed allegations of grave desecration involving Afro-Caribbean religions. Unfortunately, that paper has the largest circulation of the three.

These problems are most severe at two black cemeteries that opened during the Jim Crow era. Neither cemetery has enough funds to provide proper security, upkeep, and maintenance, which increases their risk for vandalism.

On June 6, 2018, a story about these issues was published in the Miami Herald. That article had the headline, “Grave robbers steal bones from Miami’s historic cemeteries.” It reported on problems at three Miami cemeteries: Lincoln Memorial Park, Evergreen Memorial Park, and Miami City Cemetery.

Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery [Wikimedia Commons].

Two types of grave desecration are included in the article. The first involves leaving alleged Santeria offerings in the cemeteries. If the owner of the plot, the descendants of the deceased, or the cemetery had consented to the offering, it would be no different than leaving flowers or flags at a headstone. If not, unless someone has a bias against Santeria, this type of “desecration” could be considered a type of littering.

The second type of desecration is much more disturbing. It involves allegations of grave robbery, specifically taking bones from coffins. The article alleges that this breaking and entering has connections to the use of bones in Palo Mayombe, another Afro-Caribbean religion. The article alleges that its priests either robbed graves themselves or purchased bones from people who did. The Herald article alleges that someone had offered a cemetery worker $1,000 for a human skull.

Further, it’s alleged in the article that someone had broken into three graves at Lincoln Memorial Park in March. Miami-Dade police reported no grave robberies at that cemetery from Jan. 1 to May 31, but did did report four cases of lost property or non-criminal events at this site. It is unclear what this discrepancy means. The distrust of police within black communities can result in under-reporting of crimes.

Anthropologist and author Mercedes Sandoval was quoted in the article. as saying that Santeria does not use human bones in any rituals, but that Palo Mayombe does.

The Herald article reports that these neglected cemeteries draw homeless people. It mentioned sex workers twice, drug addicts twice, and finding needles once.

About one-third of the 45 paragraphs of the Herald piece involve allegations of grave desecration as part of Afro-Caribbean religions. It only mentions the economic problems of these cemeteries twice.

Over the last three years, two other local newspapers covered this issue. These other articles did not focus on emotionally disturbing allegations of grave robbery. Instead, they focused on the economic problems of black cemeteries from the Jim Crow era. These other two stories appeared in community newspapers with much lower circulation than that of the Herald.

The Miami New Times story was published August, 2015.. That article, “Miami’s Most Historic African-American Cemetery Is Neglected and Forgotten,” placed the issue in the historic context of Jim Crow and in the mundane context of the lack of money. This article did contain one allegation about Santeria. That allegation occurred in one out of 129 sentences.

On May 8, 2017, in the Miami Times, a newspaper with a largely black audience, another story on the issue was published, “Endangered: Historic black landmarks are at risk.” That story emphasized the problems of maintaining black cemeteries and other black institutions from the Jim Crow era.

The Miami Times story consists of 841 words but has no mention of any Afro-Caribbean religion. The Miami Herald reporting included that the family that owns the Miami Times, the Reeves family, had bought Evergreen Memorial Park. They did so to stop a foreclosure process at Evergreen. The Miami Times article did not mention Evergreen Memorial Park in its article.

Miami City Cemetery, Evergreen Memorial Park, and Lincoln Memorial Park

Miami City Cemetery is listed on the city’s web site, however its main source of revenue to fund maintenance is private foundations. The Herald article alleged that people had made Santeria offerings at this cemetery. That article did not allege any grave robberies. Lincoln and Evergreen served Miami’s black population during the Jim Crow era. Miami City Cemetery had separate sections for blacks and whites during that time.

According to the Miami Herald reporting, Evergreen has suffered the most vandalism. It alleged that people had broken into 20 graves during May. The Miami-Dade police separtment reported that this cemetery was not in their jurisdiction. By press time, the Wild Hunt was unable to obtain other police confirmation of those alleged grave robberies. An online search failed to find either a phone number or a website for Evergreen.

Many of Miami’s black elite are buried in Lincoln. Black doctors, the founder of Miami’s black newspaper, and the first black female member of the Florida legislature among those buried there.

Kelsey L. Pharr, Sr. founded the 10-acre Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in 1923. When he died in 1964, Pharr left the cemetery to his goddaughter, Elyn Johnson. She lacked the funds to pay for upkeep. In 2014, Johnson filed for bankruptcy. She died one year later. Johnson left the cemetery to her niece, Jessica Williams, who now runs it.

The Dade Heritage Trust has placed Lincoln on its list of 11 at-risk sites in Miami-Dade. Six of these 11 sites have historic ties to Miami’s black community. The Dade Heritage Trust works to preserve architecture and history throughout Miami-Dade County.

Cemeteries have finite space but promise eternal care. A cemetery only takes in income when it sells a burial plot. The Miami Times article pointed out that Lincoln has reached capacity. As it can sell no more plots, it can have no new income, but requires upkeep, maintenance and security.

Reports of vandalism at Lincoln date back to at least 2012. At present Lincoln has a one-man maintenance and security staff for its 10 acres. What he cannot accomplish is left to volunteers to do. Once that work was left to prison labor. Neglect is the result, of this lack of funding, leading to opportunities for vandalism. The evidence suggests a problem economic, rather than religious, in nature.