Gulf Power employees help breathe new life into historic cemetery
Everyday commuters pass by this small plot of land in North Pensacola and don’t give it a second thought. At first glance, the area looks like a thickly overgrown abandoned field.
A closer look reveals the final resting place for hundreds of souls either born into slavery or first generation post emancipation. It’s a sacred place that tells the story of African-Americans in Pensacola.
It’s a neglected cemetery, and like many of the people buried there, much of the history of the history there has long been forgotten. And it’s a place that needs help.
Thursday, nearly 20 Gulf Power employees descended on Mount Zion Historical Cemetery as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. community outreach project to help clean up the area to preserve it for future generations.
Partnering with graduate students from the University of West Florida and volunteers from Keep Pensacola Beautiful, they scoured the cemetery wielding rakes, Weed-eaters, shears and clippers. The goal, according Margo Stringfield, UWF archeologist, was to rid the area of the weeds, vines, bushes and small trees so that larger mowers could come in and maintain the area long term.
“We’ve been working here for a little over a year, and we still have a long way to go,” said Stringfield. “We want to get the cemetery to the point where more people will want to volunteer to help restore this piece of history and heritage of the surrounding community.”
In many instances, African-American cemeteries in the South were started by small associations of a dozen or so black community leaders around the turn of the century. Mount Zion was established in the early 1940s, and like hundreds of cemeteries across the country, grew out of the result of oppressive Jim Crow laws. It was a place African-Americans could be buried with dignity. This cemetery is the final resting place of some of Pensacola’s prominent African-American community members, and veterans from World War I and II, and the Korean War.
But, according to Stringfield, like many of the cemeteries that were created to pay respect to those buried there, Mount Zion became neglected over the years and a neighborhood eyesore with no organized stewardship base to help with upkeep.
“We are now working with the Mayor’s office in conjunction with Keep Pensacola Beautiful to help restore the dignity of many of the cemeteries, including Mount Zion, and turn them into inviting spaces for residents and visitors alike,” she added. “But it takes a lot of volunteers for such a daunting project.”
That’s where Gulf Power is able to help — muscle and volunteers — according to Verdell Hawkins, Gulf Power’s Community Relations manager. They might not be able to complete the project in one day, he said, but the employees gave their best efforts in making a difference in the community.
“As part of our MLK community service initiative, our employees thought it was important to be involved in this project because of the historical significance to the African-American community,” said Hawkins. “We felt it important to help restore some of the confidence and pride to the families whose loved ones are buried here and to the members of the surrounding community.”
One Gulf Power volunteer couldn’t agree more. Having grown up close to the cemetery she felt it was important to not only find out who was buried at Mount Zion, but also help restore it to a place of dignity.
“My parents grew up in this area and I remember the cemetery well from my childhood,” said Sabrina Brooks, Customer Service Support representative. “I thought is was important to be here to help cultivate a piece of history while giving back to the community. It was the right thing to do on this community service day.”
Gulf Power is an investor-owned electric utility with all of its common stock owned by Atlanta-based Southern Company. Gulf Power serves more than 447,000 customers in eight counties throughout Northwest Florida. The company’s mission is to safely provide exceptional customer value by delivering reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electricity while strengthening our communities. Visit online at MyGulfPower.com or on the company’s Facebook page. News information can be found at GulfPowerNews.com.
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