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On the southwest corner of the bustling intersection at Goodlette-Frank and Pine Ridge Road roads, four cement posts, some leaning, most discolored, all easily ignored, are the only evidence that eight Black bodies lie in graves below.
There are no signs, no headstones no fencing. These are the unmarked graves from a segregated cemetery plot once marked “N” for “negro”. The other graves, Plot W, for “white,” are also in an unmarked site in front of a nearby strip mall containing an Asian market and Pelican Larry’s.
“The cemetery was originally in the city, and the bodies were moved in the 1930s,” Vincent Keeys, president of Collier County’s NAACP, said. “Due to segregation and laws during that time, I’m talking about Jim Crow laws, it was not permitted, as in life, that blacks were to live or associate with whites and so the same was in death. The bodies could not be buried together.”
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The gravesites were originally located at St. Ann Catholic Church in Naples but were moved as the city grew.
Now Keeys along with the Community Foundation of Collier County are pushing for the gravesite to receive the same treatment as the Rosemary Cemetery on U.S. 41, which was known as Unit B from the same original site.
“I’m asking they be given the same recognition as the white pioneers who helped build the city as well as the county,” Keeys said. “It’s NAACP’s obligation to remember these forgotten early pioneers.”
Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, said nobody knows the gravesite is there even though it’s part of the history of the community.
The Foundation has put forward a $10,000 grant to help get restoration efforts started and pay for signage to identify the site.
“It’s part of community betterment around the fact that we believe people died there when the railroad went through Goodlette-Frank,” Connolly-Keesler said. “We want to make sure people know it’s there. It is the history of what went down in Collier.”
Keeys said seven adults and one child are buried at the site, and while no one knows who is buried there, he has some thoughts.
They could have been railroad workers who were caught up in a convict leasing system, he said.
“During the Jim Crow era, most white Americans had the attitude that there was only one place for blacks: slavery,” Keeys said. “Laws started being passed and white people could walk up to a black man, say they owe them money, and get them locked up and put on a chain gang. That work was for miners and railroads, and they had to pay in labor until the so-called debt was satisfied.”
Black workers were sold right back into slavery, he said, and if no one followed up with those stuck in the system, they could be totally forgotten.
The identities of the people buried in the graves remain unknown, and Amanda Townsend, director of Collier County Museums, said it’s possible the bodies were buried after the railroad was already completed.
“There is commonly in the record — but not the primary source historical record — newspaper articles written about this in past, there is an idea floating around that these are graves of railroad workers," she said. "I’m not saying they’re not, but it is unlikely.”
It’s likely the historical records were lost in 1960 during Hurricane Donna, but a survey drawing from 1944 shows the number of graves
“This is not just a problem in Collier, it’s across the state,” Keeys said. “There are a lot of forgotten cemeteries with no identification of the bodies in them.”
County commissioners in December unanimously voted to acquire Plot N “to perform necessary improvements and annual maintenance to conform with standards similar to the county-owned Rosemary Cemetery … in order to honor and remember our community’s forbearers.”
Commissioners agreed to put forward about $27,500 for annual maintenance.
Townsend said there are also plans to have the county gain ownership of Plot W and put a fence and appropriate signs there, too.
“Essentially the goal would be to put little fences around and headstones in,” she said. “Since this is a historic cemetery, we don’t want it to be lush and green. We would not irrigate, sod or plant it with anything that was maintenance needy because that wouldn’t be true to what a cemetery would have looked like in the '30s.”
Keeys said he is grateful for the work by the Foundation, the county and city of Naples to get this work started.
“Regardless of who they are, they deserve a decent resting place,” he said. “It’s a tragedy, but at the same time they need final resting places. Equality for all is a must even in death.”
Karl Schneider is a Naples Daily News reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk