Lincoln Memorial Park, located at 3001 N.W. 46th Street, is one of the oldest black cemeteries in Dade County. It is the final resting place of many black pioneers and luminaries who have helped shape the cultural landscape of early Miami. Since its inception, thousands of people have been laid to rest within the 20-acre property. One of the most unique features of Lincoln Memorial Park is that it is one of perhaps three Miami cemeteries that is almost exclusively comprised of above-ground burial vaults.
Lincoln Memorial Park’s origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Fact and myth have blended together to produce one of Miami’s most beautiful and enduring legends. The urban-myth is described as follows: Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery was located in what was then known as the Brown Subdivision (now known as Brownsville) and was founded in the early 1920’s by a white realtor named F.B. Miller. According to the legend, Kelsey Leroy Pharr, who would later become the first black embalmer in Miami, would cut down lynching victims he found hanging from trees and would secretly burry these people at night in Lincoln Memorial Park. He did this so that these lynching victims could have a dignified resting place and did so at his own personal risk. One night, as the story goes, Mr. Miller discovered Kelsey Pharr performing one of these burials and, instead of being irate, was taken by the man’s compassion. As a result, Miller then decided to deed the property over to Kelsey Pharr at a highly discounted price, thus making Mr. Pharr one of the only blacks to own a cemetery in the south. Whether this legend has any bearing in reality is unknown. However, it is clear that myths such as these often have their roots in reality.
What is known for certain is that F.B. Miller had established Lincoln Memorial Park by c.1923. What can be inferred is that Pharr began purchasing pieces of the property from Miller by the Fall of 1923, when the Pharr Funeral Home Books record their first burials there, culminating in the 20 acres being consolidated into one property under Pharr’s ownership by 1937., Under Pharr, Lincoln Memorial Park was touted as “The Finest Colored Cemetery in the South.” He buried luminaries such as D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first African-American millionaire, H.E.S. Reeves, founder of Miami’s first black newspaper, Arthur and Polly Mays, activists for education in the underserved town of Goulds, as well as the everyday laborers who helped build Miami.
Kelsey Pharr remained actively involved with Lincoln Memorial Park up until his death in 1964, when the ownership of the property passed to Ellen Johnson, although he had a son living in South Carolina. Johnson, a native of Iowa and a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, was constantly involved with the community and had developed a long-time friendship with Pharr, who confided to her that his one desire was to maintain the cemetery as a living monument for Blacks in Miami. She spent a great deal of the rest of her life attempting to live up to his wishes. Under her ownership, the property was designated as historic by Dade County. In 1974, she commissioned the creation of a series of memorial plaques engraved with the names of the prominent people believed to be buried at Lincoln Memorial Park. They were housed on the property in a small structure she named “The Chapel of Memorials.” Ellen maintained the beauty and integrity of the cemetery up until the late 1990’s, at which point she developed Alzheimer’s. As her illness progressed, it became more difficult for her to maintain the property, which quickly became overrun with invasive plants and unwanted visitors who frequently desecrated the graves and mausoleums.
Lincoln Memorial Park continued to fall into disrepair up until Johnson’s death in 2015, at which point she passed ownership of the cemetery to her niece, Jessica Williams. For the past three years, Ms. Williams has been doing what she can to maintain Lincoln Memorial Park and has been fighting what many have considered to be an uphill battle. In late 2017, Jessica partnered with the Coral Gables Museum in a concentrated effort at restoration so that it may once again claim the title of being one of the most beautiful African-American cemeteries in the South. The Coral Gables Museum’s involvement is ongoing and has led to a series of historical discoveries that will play a hand in reshaping Miami’s recollection of it’s own past.
- By John Allen & Malcolm Lauredo
- Volume One; Number One
- August 2018