Lincoln Memorial Cemetery: The final resting place of Miami’s black pioneers

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Miami is considered by many to be Florida’s most significant predominantly African-American cemetery. 

Its roots date back to 1914, when Dr. Kelsey Pharr, a mortician from Boston, began a funeral business catering to Miami’s black community. Beginning in 1923, Pharr began purchasing pieces of property up until 1937, when over 20 acres of land was consolidated under his ownership and would be known as Lincoln Memorial, “The Finest Colored Cemetery in the South.”

Many of Miami’s notable black citizens are buried here such as Dana Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire; H.E.S. Reeves who started the Miami Times, the city’s first black newspaper which often rallied against segregation; Arthur and Polly Mays, activists for education  in the nearby town of Goulds; and Dr. William Sawyer, Miami’s first prominent black doctor and one of the founders of Christian Hospital. His daughter, Gwen Sawyer Cherry, was the first African-American woman in the state’s legislature and a founder of the National Association of Black Women Attorneys, and is also buried here in Lincoln Memorial.

When Pharr passed away in the 1964, ownership of the cemetery was passed on to his long-time friend, Ellen Johnson. For years, she did her best to maintain the beauty and integrity of the cemetery up until the late-1990s when she began suffering from Alzheimer’s. As her illness progressed, it became more difficult to maintain the property and so it slowly deteriorated. 

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery continued falling into disrepair until Johnson’s death in 2015, at which point the ownership of the property was passed over to her niece, Jessica Williams. Williams has made an effort to clean up the property by working alongside the Coral Gables Museum and hiring a caretaker to live on the property to chase off anyone trespassing. 

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