A Cemetery Shown No Respect
BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
WINTER PARK - Residents face a battle with a county and city government over the defacement of historically Black monuments in Central Florida.
The Piney Wood Cemetery, a longtime Black cemetery which provided proper burial for many Black residents of Winter Park and Orlando during a period of past and present segregation, is the setting of a battleground that concerned residents have presented over grounds of respect, which they say the county and city have not honored.
Lifelong Winter Park resident Robert Biggins reported that students partook in defacing and making light of a cemetery which functions to honor and memorialize those deceased.
“On the morning of May 30, 2017 on my route to work going past Piney Wood Cemetery I witnessed a group of whites (adults and youths) in the cemetery and on the gravesite grounds in formation.” Biggins said.
Biggins further recalled the students performing dance and song routines while in the cemetery, as adults pulled up lawnchairs and lounged in the area.
“I exited my car and approached the adults and inquired "what in the hell" is going on here. This is a cemetery, a sacred burial ground! One of the adults replied that they have permission to be here.”
“I asked by whom do you have permission? She replied, by the City of Winter Park. I replied, I don't care who gave you permission to do this because you are disrespecting, dishonoring and desecrating the final resting place of those who are here. I have family, loved ones, friends and respected former residents of Winter Park's African American community in this cemetery and none of you have the right to be here performing whatever it is that you're doing.”
Biggins, upon further investigation into the matter, discovered that the students and staff attended Maitland Middle School.
According to Biggins, tempers flared when one of the white females shouted "oh you're making this a racial issue!
“I replied yes it is a racial issue especially when a group of white people are dancing and singing on the sacred burial grounds of Black people. She replied, oh there are some white people buried here too.
This cemetery is historically and traditionally a cemetery for African Americans, however, the performance of what you are doing should not be done on any cemetery grounds, period! It is disrespectful and sacrilege.”
The students were filming an anti-bullying PSA, yet Biggins contends that the students, staff, school and school board could’ve and should’ve chosen a more suitable venue.
“I told them Maitland has cemeteries as well, why didn't you go to one in Maitland? No response was given. I also stated that your group went past Palm Cemetery on Webster Ave. in Winter Park.”
“Poor decisions were made in this sequence of events.” Andy Leftakis, principal of Maitland Middle School said of the matter.
While Biggins acknowledges the apology is noted, he also acknowledges that this is but one incident, in a repeated pattern of economic, political and emotional abuse of Black residents in Winter Park.
“As for the physical destruction of our community, you can thank Dan Bellows for that. He singled handed (with the help of powerful unseen financial backers, venture capitalists and investors) caused the demise of Winter Park, Florida's Black community. It is a mere skeleton of what it used to be...a vibrant and thriving community.”
Pineywood Cemetery has been in existence since the 1890s and was deeded to the City of Winter Park in the 1970s. Stokes Monuments has provided many memorials to families in this Cemetery.
“It is perfectly legal, but it’s highly insensitive what they are doing. It’s happening to every Black community in the United States.”
In addition to Hannibal Square, the centuries old cemetery is one of many Black based landmarks on the city’s west side. The area is also home to many historically Black churches, such as Ward Chapel AME, Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
“The city of Winter Park would like to apologize for the inconvenience and purported insensitivity that this incident has caused.” Mayor Steve Leary. Leary also suggests that the students recorded their film with no ill intentions.
Biggins has allied with the Winter Park Ministerial Alliance and the Orange County Branch NAACP to address this matter. The Winter Park resident has negated to mention additional actions that will be pursued on this matter.
“We are maintaining an atmosphere of strategic application, to prevent a situation like this from happening again.” He said.