Historic African American Cemetery

OAKLAND — As the nation celebrated its first Juneteenth federal holiday on Saturday, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, one of the most historic towns in Central Florida was gearing up to preserve a historic location with a lot of significance for the region’s black community.

The town of Oakland in west Orange County dates back to 1860, when a post office was opened in what later became the town, which was officially incorporated in 1887. It’s a small community of fewer than 3,000 residents, but it has a lot of history, and now the town is eager to preserve more of it.

Last week, Oakland became the proud recipient of a Florida Historic Preservation Grant for $25,000, which will be used for the preservation and management of its historic African American Cemetery. The Small Matching Grant from the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources becomes available on July 1, and Oakland won this grant after competing with 58 other historic preservation projects in Florida.

What is Oakland’s African American Cemetery?

The cemetery is located at 16798 W. Colonial Drive, and it was established in 1882. Burials continued to be made there through the 1940s. James Gamble Speer, the town’s founder, gave the original deed to three Black trustees in 1917, and the property was later deeded to the Town of Oakland in 2014. The three-acre, segregated burial site is believed to holds the remains of some emancipated slaves and families who migrated to West Orange County in the years after the American Civil War.

“It contains archaeologically significant African American seashell and folk grave markers,” noted Elisha Pappacoda, the administrative services and communications director for the town. “Research surrounding the residents buried in the cemetery, including family genealogy, migration to Florida, participation in the citrus industry, and economic, spiritual and social life, are of great interest not only to Oakland’s residents, but also to the West Orange and regional Central Florida communities.”

The site very nearly got razed, but was saved from development when the town started working with a group of descendants of the people buried at the cemetery to raise awareness of its historic significance. They also worked to clear away underbrush in the cemetery and encouraged archaeological work to be done there.

What Is The Town’s Plans for the Cemetery?

The town of Oakland is now seeking a professional assessment of the property as the first step toward its long-term restoration, and says this is part of a plan to preserve more of the community’s historically-significant properties.

“We need to come up with a long term plan to make the property accessible, at least on a limited access, and to maintain and take care of this to be respectful as a cemetery,” Oakland Town Manager Steve Koontz told Spectrum News13 in February.

The grant will be used for the ongoing protection of this cemetery, now considered an integral part of Oakland’s heritage. The grant will help fund proper surveying and a long-term maintenance plan, and assist in addressing issues such as :

  • Vegetative overgrowth
  • Wayfinding signs
  • Walking paths
  • Identification of graves
  • and protection of early monuments.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law legislation establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a U.S. federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. This date has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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