By Ennis Davis/The Jaxson
Closing in on 900,000 residents, Jacksonville is a bustling Sunbelt city with a bright future. However, a visit to its Moncrief Road cemetery district suggests this African-American burial ground has seen better days. But that’s expected to change.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry on Monday unveiled his budget. It includes a multiyear program that involves about $10.9 million over four years for restoration of Pinehurst Cemetery, Memorial Cemetery, Sunset Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, Hillside Cemetery and Mt. Olive Cemetery.
All the cemeteries were for African-Americans during the era of segregation. After private owners of the cemeteries abandoned them, the city took over maintenance.
Our partner, The Jaxson, has put together a photo tour of the city’s Moncrief Road cemetery district.
History of the Moncrief Road cemetery district
(Photo tour originally published on October 22, 2017)
According to a National Register of Historic Places registration form created in 1997, this Moncrief Road cemetery district was established following the Great Fire of 1901 due to there being few cemeteries for Jacksonville’s African-American community during early 20th century. Privately owned by the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and the Memorial Cemetery Association, it is believed that this district reflects the social history of the community as well as its religious attitudes towards death and dying during the first half of the 20th century. Designated as local landmark sites by the City of Jacksonville in 1992, oral tradition establishes that African burial customs from west and central Africa were practiced here.
Situated north of the intersection of Moncrief Road and Edgewood Avenue, the surrounding environment was a rural setting known for its farms and pine woods in 1900. At that time, African Americans represented 57% of the city’s population. In the decade following the Great Fire of 1901, the city’s population nearly doubled, creating the need for additional burial grounds in the segregated city. In October 1909, that need was met when a plat for Memorial Cemetery was completed on land owned by Leo K. Benedict, with Abraham Lincoln Lewis listed as the Secretary and Manager for the cemetery office, which was located at the Afro-American Life Insurance Company.
Left: A.L. Lewis, Right: The Afro-American Life Insurance Company at 101 East Union Street.
In 1901, Lewis helped to organize the Afro-American Industrial Benefit Association which later became the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Assisting Booker T. Washington to create the National Negro Business League in 1901 to “promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro”, Lewis was well known for being the state’s first African-American millionaire and for his philanthropic efforts in the black community. This included establishing Nassau County’s American Beach oceanfront resort and the prestigious Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville, and his generous gifts to Edward Waters College, Bethune-Cookman University, Florida Memorial College and Florida A&M University.
In 1911, ownership of Memorial Cemetery was transferred to the Memorial Cemetery Association, with Lewis serving as the association’s president. As Jacksonville continued to rapidly expand in population, so did the need for additional burial grounds to serve the African-American community. As a result, the Memorial Cemetery Association purchased additional land for Sunset Cemetery in April 1913 and platted Pinehurst Cemetery in 1928. In 1936, James H. Lewis, his son, took over the presidency of the insurance company and the Memorial Cemetery Association was dissolved with the Lewis family retaining ownership of the burial grounds.
Over the years, the center of Memorial and Sunset became “fashionable” places for burials while Pinehurst was considered to be an “ordinary” location. With the end of segregation, the cemeteries and other African-American cemeteries within the Moncrief Cemetery District declined in a similar manner as inner city communities did across the country. Owned, operated by and long affiliated with the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, Memorial, Sunset and Pinehurst cemeteries were negatively impacted as the company found itself in a struggle to survive in a desegregated environment. As they declined, they were avoided for newer cemeteries and in some cases, families relocated the remains of loved ones to more well-tended cemeteries.
In 1986, ownership of the cemeteries was transferred to the Memorial Cemetery, Inc. Four years later, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company closed its doors for good. By the time, the 1997 National Register of Historic Places registration form was created for the district, it was believed that the Memorial Cemetery, Inc. was defunct. 20 years have passed since the incomplete application to the National Register of Historic Places was created for the cemetery district. However, this photo tour of Memorial and Sunset cemeteries suggest what should be a scene of tranquility has become visual place of horror after decades without sufficient maintenance and upkeep.
Situated at the northwest corner of Moncrief Road and Edgewood Avenue, the 18.5-acre Memorial Cemetery was established in 1909. The largest of a cemetery district serving as the burial ground for 70,000 early 20th century African-American Jaxsons, it is the final resting place for Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Across the street from Sunset Cemetery, the center of Memorial Cemetery was known as a “fashionable” location for burials prior to desegregation.
The Art Deco styled Lewis Mausoleum was designed by architect Leeroy Sheftall and constructed in 1939 for the family of Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Born to freed slaves in 1865, Lewis was the president of the African-American Life Insurance Company until his death in 1947. He is recognized as one of Florida’s first black millionaires.
Left: A.L. Lewis, Right: The Afro-American Life Insurance Company at 101 East Union Street.
The Ervin Mausoleum was constructed in 1934-35 for the family of Louis Dargan Ervin. Louis Ervin was the first sales agent for the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He eventually moved up the ranks to become the company’s vice president. This mausoleum was constructed following the death of his wife, Elzena G. Ervin. Louis Ervin died in 1964 and is interred there as well.
The Chisholm Mausoleum was constructed between the mid-1930s and 1940s. Surrounded by a low, red brick wall, stumps of cedar trees indicate it once including landscaping as a part of its original design.
Isaiah A. Blocker served as the principal of Stanton High School from 1915 until 1917, when the current structure still standing was completed. Dating back to the Reconstruction Era, Stanton High School was the first public high school for African-Americans in Jacksonville.
Situated at the southwest corner of Moncrief Road and Edgewood Avenue, land for Sunset Cemetery was acquired by the Memorial Cemetery Association in 1913. Sunset Cemetery was known as a “fashionable” burial location for wealthy African-Americans in Jacksonville prior to desegregation. Sunset is dominated with cedar and arbor vitae trees planted in the 1930s as a part of a formal landscape plan. Despite burials taking place as late as the 1990s, this cemetery is in a deplorable condition.
The Art Moderne-inspired Craddock Mausoleum was built in the late 1930s to mid 1940s by James “Charlie Edd” Craddock. Craddock was a controversial character who established the Little Blue Chip nightclub at 426 Broad Street (Richmond Hotel) after arriving in Jacksonville in 1921. He opened a bread line for the hungry during the Depression, giving him a reputation as a philanthropist in the city’s African-American community.
Over the years, he acquired and owned several rental properties, the Charlie Edd Hotel, Young Men’s Smoke Chop, Uncle Charlie Edd’s Barber shop, loan offices, pawn shops, employing as many as 500. However, his most well known business was the Two Spot nightclub at Moncrief Road and 45th Street. In 1942, the Two Spot was said to be “the finest dance place in the country owned by a Negro”. He was the part owner of Manuel’s Tap Room on Ashley Street and was recognized as a local bolita kingpin.
“Charlie Edd” Craddock and his Uncle Charlie Edd’s store and loan office in LaVilla in 1942. (The Crisis – January 1942 Edition)
The Langley Mausoleum is an Art Modern/Art Deco structure constructed between the mid-1930s and mid-1940s. It was built for the family of William Edward Langley. The Langley family operated a prominent taxicab operation during segregation.
Historical research courtesy of Adrienne Burke
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro Jacksonville.com andModernCities.com — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org