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Florida residents are in court over a cemetery's future

Elijah Wooten stands near the graves of many of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.
Gabriel Albert III
Elijah Wooten stands near the graves of many of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.

Every morning, Elijah Wooten walks through the Westview Community Cemetery. On this particular morning, he's wearing a loose polo shirt, slacks and a Korean War Veteran cap pulled down over his gray hair. The hair spills out from underneath the hat and runs down as sideburns.

He walks across the unkempt field of the cemetery, a landscape that shifts from uncut grass and weeds to dirt that turns to mud after a rain.

Cement vaults that cover graves are close together, offering little space for Wooten to reach his family's plot. He's got a slight wobble, but he keeps a good pace for a 91-year-old.

His family's graves are covered in granite stone and inscribed with names and bible verses. They are among the most maintained of the 400 or so graves.

He picks up a plastic bottle and small cardboard boxes and takes them to the dumpster.

"Anything that I can do to make the place look better, I do," says Wooten, who has lived in Pompano Beach his entire life.

The cemetery is lined with white-painted cement vaults. The first few rows are freshly painted in holy-white, but the condition of the cement vaults get progressively worse the further away you get from the cemetery's entrance.

Most headstones, if they exist, are split or crumbling. Figurines of Jesus and the Virgin Mary lay on their side, missing limbs. And, in one case, a vault is cracked so badly that the casket underneath is exposed to the harsh rain and sun and moisture of South Florida.

Parts of the Westview Community Cemetery are in disrepair. It is caught in a court battle over who should have control of the grounds.
Gabriel Albert III / WLRN NEWS
Parts of the Westview Community Cemetery are in disrepair. It is caught in a court battle over who should have control of the grounds.

The abhorrent state of the historic Black cemetery is at the center of a legal battle over who is in charge of its operation, upkeep and land — some of which was sold to a developer who planned to build an industrial office park until it was voted down by the city's Planning and Zoning board last November.

The cemetery is run by a nonprofit board of four Trustees who were behind the 2020 sale. The board's validity is being disputed in court by a new board, elected in 2022 by community members and made up of Pompano Beach residents, most of whom have family buried in the cemetery.

For some, it's an example of the far reaching effects of segregation on Black communities across the country, who have largely relied on elders and activists to push for preservation with little help from municipal, state or the federal governments.

Antoinette Jackson is the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. She has worked for years archiving and preserving the history of Black cemeteries in Tampa and around the country.

"That cemetery [Westview] is an example of what happens when there has been a continual tension of trying to maintain a cemetery with limited resources," she said. "All those layers of things that they're dealing with underscore the systemic nature of what segregation often meant to Black cemeteries and Black communities."

Jackson runs the Black Cemetery Network, an online community that works to preserve archives and physical sites of Black cemeteries across the country. It started as a way for others like her to communicate about their preservation efforts.

"The big, thousand foot level is the preservation of history and the comprehensive understanding of communities, which come with acknowledgement that these cemeteries and these communities were there, and sometimes are still there," she said.

Keeping that history alive in Black communities has long been the job of elders and activists.

Ramona La Roche has been part of many of those efforts throughout Florida and her homeland in South Carolina. Now she works to archive genealogies in Black cemeteries throughout the South.

She was part of a push to preserve the remains of 31 people buried under an auditorium in Charleston.

"They initially wanted to place the bones at another Black church. The community protested," she said. Ultimately the bones were buried back in the spot where they were found.

"We marched from The College of Charleston back to the burial site and we actually put each of the remains in its own separate small box, and then they were put in one coffin, and then we reinterred it."

La Roche says the City of Charleston paid for the burial celebration. In Florida, cities like Tampa and Deerfield Beach have bought back properties from developers who discovered human remains on the land.

Until recently, help from governments has been limited. Some states, like Florida, have moved to help the preservation of land and archives. Still, development is an ever-present threat to the land as the state's population increases.

A Florida law, approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis last May, created a Historic Cemeteries Advisory Council and provided over a million dollars for research, restoration and long-term care of burial grounds.

Progress has been slower on the federal level, where the African-American Burial Grounds Preservation Act has been introduced in the Senate. It would make grants available for preserving African American burial grounds.

Westview Cemetery's history dates to the 1950s

In 1952, Black businessman Paul Hunter donated the land — all 15 acres of it — to be used for burying Black residents after the city passed a racist law banning the integration of the city-run cemetery. Although the law has since been repealed, the cemetery still caters to mostly Black residents of Pompano Beach.

Burials are also inexpensive — $1,600 — which caused financial challenges for the current board, according to their former chair. They sold what they said was an unused parcel of about 5 acres for just over $1 million in 2020 and vowed to use the money to revitalize the cemetery.

Community members haven't seen much improvement.

Residents challenged the sale of the land in court. That challenge failed.

The new owners, the development company KZ Copans, said they contracted a company to search for remains on the land but found none. Longtime city residents contest that claim.

The fate of what remains of the Westview Community Cemetery is now tied up in court.

In recent years, more public attention and awareness has emerged surrounding Black cemeteries and their erasure.

In 2015, Deerfield Beach residents came forward with testimony that land purchased by a developer held remains of their family members. It took three separate archeological surveys to find remains. The land was then turned into a memorial park with support from the developer and the city.

Cemetery land is sold

In 2020, unbeknownst to the Pompano Beach community, two members of the Westview Community Cemetery board signed away 4.3 acres of cemetery land to Jacob Zebede and KZ Copans for $1.29 million.

A year later, a group of residents sued to have the contract between the board and KZ Copans voided. They claimed the board had been running afoul of their own bylaws, which prohibited sale of any cemetery land and required nine members. This board only had four.

That lawsuit failed in 2020.

An appeal was also shot down by the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal.

'A second bite at the apple'

In January 2022, a group of residents upset at the state of the cemetery held a community meeting and started to vet candidates for a new board. They held elections in accordance with bylaws and formed a new nine-member board.

Last May, a group of four residents, including one newly named board member, filed a lawsuit against the old board, alleging they changed bylaws to work in their favor, stopped holding meetings and elections and allowed themselves to be paid for serving on the board.

Through the lawsuit, they hope a judge will rule that the newly elected members are the rightful Board of Trustees for the cemetery.

"I heard about what was going on, I just felt that it was wrong and I wanted to get involved because I wanted to help right the wrong," said Sonya Williams-Finney, who was elected to the new board.

Williams-Finney grew up in Pompano Beach and has family buried at the cemetery. Because of bad record keeping, she does not know the location of her family's graves. About 30 percent of the graves are unidentified, according to records.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the old-board's lawyer Jonathan Heller, wrote that the new lawsuit is "trying to take a second bite at the apple, before a new judge."

The judge in the case, Jeffrey Levenson, allowed the case to move forward and it is currently pending in county court.

'Better be careful what you ask for'

During a Pompano Beach Planning and Zoning Board meeting last Nov. 15, Keith Poliakoff, an attorney for KZ Copans, gave a presentation to the board and dozens of fuming residents about his vision for Westview Cemetery's future.

In a video portion of the presentation, workers are seen pressure washing and re-painting vaults that cover the caskets. However, when WLRN visited the site in January only a few rows of vaults near the cemetery's entrance had been repainted and cleaned. Paint buckets were left sprawled throughout the cemetery near vaults and headstones.

The money from the sale — about $1.2 million — would pay for things like painting and pressure cleaning the vaults, paving the roads and a new irrigation system, according to a budget Poliakoff presented. He also said the developer pledged another $600,000 if the zoning change is granted. That money, he noted, would be used for a digital archive project and other improvements.

When Walter Hunter came to the microphone, he was berated by jeers. Hunter was the president and CEO of the cemetery board and initiated the sale of the land.

"The time has come to breathe new life into Westview Cemetery," he said, calling the decision to sell the land as "the most difficult decision that we could ever make."

Poliakoff's mission was to get the board to change the zoning for the land so that KZ Copans could construct an industrial office building there. The board voted unanimously against the zoning change.

"The ownership will go back to the drawing board if it has to, and it will say, 'okay, fine, if we have to turn this into a waste transfer station under the code, that's what we'll do.' And sometimes, you know, you better be careful what you ask for," Poliakoff warned community members.

Tundra King, a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, chastised Poliakoff and some of her colleagues who wanted to see documentation of the dedication of the cemetery.

"I've heard you go back and forth as to 'there may not be history that's in writing' or 'no one has been able to produce certain things in writing.' You have the history sitting right here in the audience," she said, referring to the dozens of community members.

"We know that a lot of things from the African American community back in that time was not properly documented."

Sonya Williams-Finney and Elijah Wooten look over graves of Wooten's family members.
Gabriel Albert III / WLRN NEWS
Sonya Williams-Finney and Elijah Wooten look over graves of Wooten's family members.

Vacant land and the future

The fight is not over. The Planning and Zoning vote was just a recommendation that the city and county now have from the board.

What those two governing bodies do and the result of pending litigation will shape the future of hundreds of Pompano Beach residents that wish to be buried near their families.

A Broward County judge plans to start hearing arguments from attorneys in March.

As for Wooten, his fight to preserve his family's graves at Westview continues.

"I've been doing this for the last, what, two years, two and a half years now. ... Anything, anything, anything can be done that I can do to make the place look better, I do."

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Corrected: March 1, 2024 at 1:00 AM AST
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law approval for over a million dollars for research, restoration and long-term care of burial grounds, not to buy land.
Gerard Albert
Gerard Albert III is a senior journalism major at Florida International University, who flip-flopped around creative interests until being pulled away by the rush of reporting.