By Dara Tolbert Brooks, M. Ed

As a new resident of Manatee County and new member of ASALH-Manasota I’ve participated where I could. When I received the email from ASALH President Dr. James Stewart forwarding the event information for the Oaklands-Woodlawn Cemetery I knew it was something I had to make. Having documented cemeteries in rural Alabama, family plots in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Florida I am keenly aware of the importance of keeping our legacy alive.

I know sometimes we say, “What can I do, I’m just one person?” The reality is one is all it takes to ignite a fire in the minds and hearts of others. That was evident when on Wednesday, February 19, 2020 countless men, women and children from the Sarasota, Florida area gathered to be part of a ceremony to honor those veterans buried at the Oaklands-Woodlawn Cemetery. Identified as the first recognized African American cemetery for the community it was home to those who had never received recognition for their sacrifice as soldiers for America. As African Americans many experienced discrimination at home, in the military and again after they completed their tour of duty.

The Beginning

It all began with a chance meeting between two people who had a desire to make things right for the community. The encounter filled with heartfelt words and documentation of an African American Cemetery in dire need of saving moved Colonel Ben Weiss, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Special Forces and then Director of the Booker High School Junior ROTC program. He shared this information with his cadets who decided that four of them would visit the cemetery to see for themselves. After spending some time walking through the rubble from the devastation of Hurricane Irma; the spoils of those illegally dumping; the refuse from squatters; and years of neglect they returned to the Colonel to share their experience. They were believers in the larger military family and determined that the interred needed to be shown respect. This led to a multi-phase plan to bring back honor where it was due.

Phase I initiated in 2018 represented the cleanup plan. With grave markers that had shifted from their original places, some broken and crypts caved in, full of water and debris they had their work cut out for them. The cleanup revealed the graves of WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans as well as other African American citizens. After taking a position at the Sarasota Military Academy Colonel Weiss shared the project with those cadets. They decided to assist the project by researching the names on the gravesites and identifying a small portion of the lives of these veterans. This resulted in the SMA Cadets placing an American flag on each veteran gravesite identified for Veterans Day 2019.

Phase II involved fundraising to design, purchase and erect a plaque demonstrating that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. Many were involved including the Sarasota Veterans of Foreign Wars. With hearts full of love of their country and military brethren the two cadet groups continue to work to correct the situation. The next step is to erect a flagpole to further honor the cemetery and its important residents. 

The Ceremony

It was an important day in many ways for the families of loved ones buried at the cemetery. Brought together by the JROTC students at Booker High School, the ceremony was a further attempt to honor those soldiers. With a blazing sun pressing down on us we shared in the making of a new history for the cemetery. The BHS JROTC Cadets designed and led the program. Words were shared by many including city officials and students. The musical selections provided by the school’s music department choirs helped define the moment. The students honored African American veterans laid to rest in the cemetery with a marker symbolic of their lives and accomplishments not having been forgotten. The marker reads:

“This marker is in Honor of all who have proudly served and protected our nation.”

Booker High School JROTC

During the dedication ceremony Commissioner Willie Shaw identified names and their local connections which included his own family as well as that of members of the audience. The largest surprise was when he identified a family member of Booker High School Principal Dr. Rachel Shelly and was able to share a story important to her family history. Sitting near the back Colonel Weiss, the man who first led the effort with his cadets proudly watched the fruits of his inspiration unfold before him. It was indeed an emotional moment.

SFC John Ledbetter, current BHS JROTC instructor remarked, “This senior generation are the last eye witnesses to major systemic segregation and racism, and it’s important for the messengers of the future generation to carry on the spirit of the struggle and know what their ancestors fought so hard for.”

History, Next Steps and Impact

According to the plaque dedicated in 2004 by the Sarasota Historical Commission the cemetery containing five acres was deeded in 1905 to Trustees John Mays, Willis G.P. Washington, Lewis Colson, Campbell Mitchell and J. P. Carter, African Americans who left their own legacies to the community.  The first burial was said to have been April 10, 1905. That means it was likely Johnnie Miller, a child    

born just two years before on New Year’s Day 1903. The cemetery became home to those early African Americans who toiled in the area sawmill, turpentine and other industries that exploited their labor and endangered their bodies. In walking the graveyard on two separate occasions I could feel the history surrounding me. As I gathered the names of those interred I too found a marker that needed pursuing, that of Henry Tolbert born April 1, 1890 and died February 9, 1963. With enslaved members of my ancestral family being willed to white enslaver family members in Florida this is a clue worth pursuing.

Recently, Col Weiss told me of a phone call he received from Military Command Headquarters. It turns out that a conversation he had while at camp this past summer where he shared his pride in the cemetery project lit another fire. The same fellow military leader he shared his story with inspired his own cadets on the eastern side of Florida to do the same. Those cadets sought to identify a cemetery in need. Since then they have identified two churches with adjoining cemeteries suffering from tremendous neglect and have adopted them. Other than having veterans buried there they had no other connection to them. The community is ecstatic and Col Weiss is more than proud of how a short conversation has led to so much good.

As I reflect upon the commitment of all the Cadets on both sides of the state and all those involved I cannot help but feel that the Booker High School motto, “Celebrating Excellence, Creating Pride” has been lived up to. I also feel that ASALH’s founder Dr. Carter G. Woodson would take his hat off to them!