Cemetery Offers a Peek at the Past
Articles: Sarasota History
Woodlawn Cemetery, located off 12th Street at the end of Gillespie Avenue in Sarasota, is the oldest recorded cemetery for African Americans in what is now Sarasota County.
In 1905, the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, which had founded the Town of Sarasota in 1885, provided five acres for a “grave yard for colored people solely.” Five years later a plat was filed for Oaklands Cemetery on that site. During the 1920s, the name changed from Oakland to Pepper Hill and then to Wood Lawn.
A cemetery holds information that can outline a community’s membership. Additional information enhances the story of the community’s heritage.
The earliest known tombstone at Woodlawn shows a death date of April 10, 1905, for Johnnie Miller, age 27 months. He is one of the more than 100 infants and children listed in “Cemeteries of Sarasota County” along with over 700 adults in Woodlawn Cemetery. Five of those adults lived into their second century.
Research to date shows that eight of those buried in Woodlawn Cemetery had been born before the Civil War ended. One of these people was Willis Washington. Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1851, he came to Sarasota with his wife Sophia Jane in 1894.
The 1897 Manatee Directory described him as a fisherman. They were leaders in the early Bethlehem Baptist Church. Willis was ordained a Deacon and Sophia was a Trustee at the time the congregation acquired land for the church’s first building on Central Avenue.
Describing Willis Washington’s funeral in April 1910, the Sarasota Times attested to his esteem in the community by noting that at least 175 people with 14 vehicles attended the services. (The 1910 Federal Census listed 840 residents in the Town of Sarasota).
Members of the family of Leonard Reid, who came to Sarasota around 1900, are buried at Woodlawn. They include Leonard, his wife Eddie Coleman, daughters Viola Reid and Ethel Reid Hayes, and son James Leonard.
Leonard Reid (see grave marker above) came to Sarasota in 1900 as a fisherman, but found a variety of other work with John Hamilton Gillespie, who later was elected Sarasota’s first mayor. Eddie Coleman had arrived earlier and was being raised by the Gillespie's. Leonard and Eddie married in 1901 and became leaders in the Payne Chapel AME Church.
After Gillespie’s death, Reid became a gardener and gained a reputation as a horticultural miracle-worker. Ethel Reid Hayes returned to Sarasota after graduation from college, taught in the Booker School, and later became director of the Helen R. Payne Day Nursery.
Those interred in Woodlawn Cemetery have come from around the county. Isaac Gilyard, who had been a fireman during the 1920s at the Woodmere Lumber Company, located south of Venice, died in 1949 while living in Laurel. Aaron Kirby, born before Emancipation, also lived in Laurel before his death and burial at Woodlawn in 1943.
Ruby Gaven lived on the Palmer Farms in Fruitville at the time of her 1930 death. Joe Nathan Davis Jr. lived in Venice; Roxie Washington lived in Bee Ridge. A member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who was helping to build the infrastructure of Myakka River State Park, was buried at Woodlawn after being killed in a truck accident.
Research into the lives of those buried in Woodlawn Cemetery continues. The information gained enriches our knowledge and understanding of Sarasota County’s African American heritage.
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Rosemary is an aromatic herb that denotes remembrance and thus makes a fitting name for the city of Sarasota's first cemetery. It was part of the original plat the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company filed for Sarasota in 1886. Seventeen years later, John Hamilton Gillespie (the company's manager) and his wife, Mary, donated the cemetery to the newly incorporated town of Sarasota.