As the restoration of a historic black cemetery in Gulfport continues, so does the question of ownership.
Vanessa Gray, 23, has been volunteering at Lincoln Cemetery for more than a year, working in her free time to clean up the overgrown mess left amidst confusion over ownership.
- Deed was signed over to her, Vanessa Gray claims
- Black community leaders feel blindsided by action
- Gray not willing to back down, willing to work with church
Gray said she now owns the property, after tracking down the man she believes to be the rightful owner through a public records search.
"He was very surprised. He didn’t think he still had ownership of the property," Gray said. "But according to the State of Florida, it all traced back to Richard Alford. The problem is, the deed was never filed properly."
Gray said Alford signed the deed over to her and now, she plans to maintain and restore the property through her newly-formed non-profit Lincoln Cemetery Society Inc.
But not everyone is so sure Gray is the rightful property owner.
"When we set aside the funds, it was clear no money would be expended until ownership was cleared up. Staff is trying to determine legal ownership." - Commissioner Charlie Justice
The Rev. Clarence Williams of the Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg was working with the church's nonprofit to secure ownership of Lincoln Cemetery. Williams and his colleagues were even granted $90,000 from Pinellas County in BP settlement money.
It's funding Williams said is vital to the cemetery's sustainability.
"A plan is great, but the execution of the plan is really where the rubber meets the road," Williams said. "So we can say a whole lot of things and hope a lot of things, but at the end of the day the cemetery and those working in it have to have the resources."
The grant now hangs in the balance if the county deems Gray the rightful property owner.
"When we set aside the funds, it was clear no money would be expended until ownership was cleared up," said Commissioner Charlie Justice. "Staff is trying to determine legal ownership."
Williams declined to say whether or not his church would challenge Gray's ownership claim but does say he and other black community leaders feel blindsided by her actions.
Still, Gray said her intentions have always been good and while she’s not backing down, she is willing to work with anyone who has the same goals.
"Just come and talk to me," Gray said. "Because honestly, I'm more than willing to answer any questions and try to keep your hopes and dreams alive for Lincoln Cemetery as well."