Nestled in the shadow of the expressway ramps that connect to Mathews Bridge is one of Jacksonville’s oldest and most complicated history museums. The rows of hand-carved headstones and overgrown fences tell a story that lies six feet below the surface.
The graves of Confederate soldiers are just feet from those of prominent African American figures in the community. The cemetery is segregated by race and consequently by quality.
The many differences of Old City Cemetery’s occupants are a haunting entity onto themselves. But many of the buried share two characteristics; graves overgrown by nature and stories overgrown by time.
The first documented burial at Old City Cemetery was in 1827. The last burial was in 1998.
“When you walk through the iron gates of the Old City Cemetery, you’re strolling through at least 165 years of Jacksonville history,” said Sandy Strickland, a reporter for the Times Union.
The grounds are guarded by a Jacksonville police officer who lives on the property. The stories of the cemetery are guarded by preservation groups and activists.
One of whom is Adrienne Burke, Executive Director of the Riverside Avondale Preservation or PAL. The organization is “an advocate for active preservation of our neighborhood’s historic assets.”
“The cemetery is actually in pretty good shape relative to other historic cemeteries I have seen, and others in the city in particular,” said Burke.
Burke, along with a team at PAL, has collected the history of Old City Cemetery and it’s occupants.
Established as Jacksonville’s primary burial grounds in 1852, the then “City” Cemetery was thought to be built on a Native American burial ground.
Capt. Charles Wiley, a steamboat captain, and his wife donated the property to the town. Initially the land was called Wiley Cemetery until the name was changed. As Jacksonville grew, so did the need for gravesites and more land was acquired.
Usage of Old City Cemetery declined after Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1881.
In 2012, according to the Times Union, the cemetery was vandalized. Headstones were shattered and the pieces had been scattered across the property. Some of the vadalized stones dated back to the 1800s.
Most of the history of the cemetery pertains to those buried there.
“The size of their memorials and the quality of their gravestones may differ, but their bodies lie in the same soil,” Strickland says.
Clara and Eartha White are a pair of the more recognizable names engraved on a headstone sitting in Old City Cemetery. The mother/daughter pair were local Jacksonville humanitarians and founders of the Clara White Mission.
Another interesting individual buried at the cemetery is Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi. Originally from Ghana, Kofi founded her own church in the US. Followers called her “Mother Kofi”. She traveled the country but was eventually assassinated in 1928 while preaching in Miami.
Her followers built a small white mausoleum where she is still buried today.
Also buried was Marie Louise Gato, the 19-year-old daughter of Gabriel Hidalgo Gato, who owned El Modelo, Jacksonville’s largest cigar factory.
Gato was shot in 1897, entering her home and named her boyfriend, Edward George Pitzer, as the culprit. She later died and the the trial found Pitzer not guilty.
Alexander Darnes was the first African-American doctor in Jacksonville and was active during a Yellow fever outbreak.
Confederate General Joseph Finegan defeated Union at Olustee.
Old City Cemetery is also home to Gov. Francis Fleming. Elected 1889, Fleming was a Democrat and segregationist. He enacted poll taxes and disenfranchisement techniques in Reconstruction-era Florida.
Congressman Claude L’Engle was a US Congressman from 1913-1915.
One of the more interesting residents of the cemetery is Alice Nunn. Most known for her role as Large Marge in the film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
As for the other 500-plus graves, there are just some stories that go unknown.