Hundreds of thousands pass the remains of Mount Herman Cemetery on Interstate 95 daily.
The ugly history regarding the fate of many segregation era black cemeteries in Florida was highlighted last fall when two forgotten cemeteries in Tampa were rediscovered. Using ground-penetrating radar to discover nearly 200 graves, Tampa’s Zion Cemetery was buried and forgotten under a public housing complex and warehouse prior to the Tampa Bay Times receiving a tip from a cemetery researcher. A few weeks later, a second black cemetery with at least 145 graves was discovered beneath a high school campus.
As a result, State Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) filed a bill (SB 220) that would create a Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries through the Department of State for the express purpose of studying the extent to which unmarked or abandoned African American cemeteries and burial grounds exist throughout the state and developing and recommending strategies for identifying and recording cemeteries and burial grounds while also preserving local history and ensuring dignity and respect for the deceased; requires the Department of State to partner with specified entities to undertake an investigation of Tampa’s former Zion Cemetery site; and allocates $500,000, of which $100,000 is for a memorials at Tampa’s Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries and $400,000 to fund research associated with findings made by the Task Force on Abandoned African-American Cemeteries. Co-sponsors of SB 220 include Darryl Rouson (D-Tampa/St. Petersburg), Linda Steward (D-Orlando) and Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville).
An 1887 map of Jacksonville illustrating the location of Mount Herman Cemetery
As horrible as the discovery in Tampa sounds, this is an act that took place in many communities across the country during the 20th century, including Jacksonville. In Florida’s oldest major city, the remains of the once enslaved and those who helped rebuild the city following the Great Fire of 1901 likely continue to lie under segregation era parks, industrial sites and housing developments. Located at 1093 West 6th Street, Mount Herman Cemetery, one of the oldest associated with Jacksonville’s African American community, may be the most obvious example.
A 1913 Sanborn map showing the location of Mount Herman Cemetery
The cemetery was developed around 1880 by Francis F. L’Engle, founder of LaVilla, a 19th century incorporated suburb of Jacksonville. Acquiring a portion of the LaVilla plantation property in 1856, L’Engle, a prominent local attorney, then subdivided land and provided 99-year leases to 41 freedmen on May 30, 1866.
With L’Engle serving as the town’s first mayor, emancipated enslaved found the new town attractive due to its inexpensive housing and proximity to employment. Growing rapidly, LaVilla was home to nearly 1,100 residents by 1870, 77 percent of whom were black. By 1880, LaVilla’s black population had doubled.
In response, L’Engle established Mount Herman as a burial ground for African Americans along the banks of Standsell Creek, just north of the early Jacksonville suburb. When the Jacksonville Belt Railroad was constructed in 1886, a railroad depot was constructed nearby.
A 1938 plat map of Jacksonville illustrating the location of Mount Herman Cemetery. Image courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.
Appearing in late 19th century maps, today’s Mount Herman Street was identified as Cemetery Lane in early 20th century Sanborn maps. At that time, Cemetery Lane provided access to the cemetery from Kings Road, the major thoroughfare into LaVilla and Jacksonville during the 19th century. The primary burial ground for Jacksonville’s black community, 113 names of people buried at Mount Herman was identified in the 1898 Florida Times Union index.
Mount Herman’s popularity as a burial ground declined with the establishment of new cemeteries along Moncrief Road by Abraham Lincoln Lewis during the first decade of the 20th century. In May 1941, E.J. and Mary E. L’Engle, heirs of Francis F. L’Engle, deeded Mount Herman to the City of Jacksonville with the requirement that the property be used either as a public cemetery or park. A 1949 Jacksonville Journal article described Mount Herman as an overgrown vacant lot with high weeds nearly obscuring headstones.
Emmett Reed Park during the 1970s. The railroad is now the S-Line Urban Greenway trail.
By the early 1950s, plans to erase the cemetery and transform the land into a park materialized as a plan to construct an expressway (Interstate 95) through nearby Wilder Park.
According to a 1953 Jet Magazine article titled Dixie City Keeps Monument to Negro Who Saved White Woman, “In preparation for a new park, all tombstones were moved from the old City Cemetery in Jacksonville, Fla., except one inscribed: “This tablet marks the grave of Thompson Williams, a Negro, who died on October 28, 1908, from wounds received while endeavoring to protect the honor and the life of a white woman.” However, family members suggest that Williams was murdered and the story was made up.
The Emmett Reed Community Center
The 12.5-acre Emmett Reed Park was officially dedicated on September 28, 1969. A historical cemetery form prepared in 1997 for the Florida Master Site File suggests that some graves may have been moved to cemeteries on Moncrief Road, some markers may have deteriorated, and that others may have been disturbed during the development of Emmett Reed Community Center.
Five decades later, today there are visual reminders of this property once being a cemetery. In an overgrown section of the park, the headstones of the Fagins family plot can be seen from Interstate 95. In addition, saved for tradition’s sake, the 1908 tombstone of Thompson Williams sits in the middle of West 6th Street.
Perhaps Mount Herman is just the tip of the iceberg and just as much research and study should be conducted into this issue in Jacksonville as it has been in Tampa and other areas of the state.
A 1943 aerial of an overgrown Old Mount Herman Cemetery. Historic aerial photography courtesy of the University of Florida Digital Collections.
A 2017 Google Earth aerial of Emmett Reed Park. During the 1950s, the cemetery was converted into a public park and community center.