Preserving heritage: the New College Public Archaeology Lab conducts a survey of the Galilee Cemetery

all photos Shane Donglasan/Catalyst

Feb. 29, 1983 is the death date engraved on one of the many grave markers in the Galilee Cemetery. However, 1983 was not a leap year. A pair of grave markers belonging to one woman had the same death dates but different years. Others are simply unmarked.

The tedious task of recording each of these grave markers has been taken on by the New College Public Archaeology Lab (NCPAL).“Though it might seem unusual, there actually isn’t a record for the cemetery in terms of the kind of basic information about the person and the information on their grave markers,” Professor of Anthropology Uzi Baram said. “So what students are doing is engaging in that record-keeping.”

The project began as a community tutorial under Baram during the 2010 spring semester. Since then, more than 1,200 grave markers have been recorded.

Galilee is one of two African-American owned cemeteries in Newtown, Sarasota. The City of Sarasota deeded the cemetery, which opened around 1935, to the city’s black community. “We see the legacies of segregation here in this cemetery,” Baram said. “The City of Sarasota is very clear this belongs to the community group and not to the city. The City is willing to have the lawn taken care of, but not the actual maintenance of the place. Yet the City does own the Rosemary Cemetery, which is the white cemetery in town. We see some of those legacies a little too clearly, but it’s an important lesson of how cities actual work and how history has legacies for people today.”

The cemetery is situated along the busy U.S. 301 in between a Hertz Equipment Rental and a waste management plant. Weather conditions have led to the deterioration of the grave markers and vaults. The Woodlawn and Galilee Cemetery Restoration Task Force, a community group created by the City to maintain the cemetery, initiated the process of transitioning the burial ground into a historic site.

“The Task Force started the project by cleaning up the cemetery,” thesis student Michael Waas said. “It’s their project. We are just here to help.” The information that Waas and other students gather will allow the Task Force to apply for historic preservation grants.

Beyond the recording, the survey became an opportunity to collect oral histories on the cemetery and those buried there.

“Initially we were just recording grave markers, and then I began working on projects which involved thinking about memorialization and what it means to celebrate someone who passed away,” thesis student Rozalyn Crews said. “Peoples’ heritage is important because it can help you relate to others. I got to appreciate things that weren’t part of my culture and then expanded it.”

“For the general community it’s important for Sarasota and not just the descent,” Waas added. “It’s important in the sense that these are their family and friends. Some of them still remember stories about the people. It’s also important for the Sarasota community because this opens up so much about the complexity of Sarasota. The race relations throughout the early 20th century and then the changing demographics of Newtown. There’s several people buried there now who are Hispanic.”

There are about 150 grave markers left to record and once the project is complete, NCPAL will hold a public event on campus. Baram will give a report to the Task Force, as well as present to them the finished database. “Hopefully, we can get people to come out and appreciate what we have been doing and what Newtown as a community has achieved,” Crews said.

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