In the 1900s, a man by the name of Gaston Drake came to South Florida and founded the town of Princeton, FL. The small town sat along the Florida East Coast Railroad and was named after Princeton University, his alma mater.
As the owner of the Drake Lumber Co. in Miami, he provided an area of land to be used as a cemetery for his black workers. In the late twenties or early thirties, the Light of the East Masonic Lodge #1 acquired the cemetery for taxes according to Mr. Major Beatty, a member of the Masons. After the Masons acquired the property, it became the permanent burial ground for all black from Homestead to Perrine.
With the land being primarily Coral rock, it usually took two days and several men with picks, grubbing hoes and shovels to open the ground. But then in 1919, when Johnnie (Catman) Everett’s sister-in-law died from Tuberculosis and being skilled in the use of dynamite he used it to prepare her grave. From that point forward, Everett became the official gravedigger for the area from 1919 – 1955. With the use of dynamite, he was able to open a grave in less than six hours.
The cost of the burial was $150, and that was only for a cloth-covered casket. Since insurance companies did not start offering insurance policies to blacks until the thirties, door to door collections was made to cover the costs.
When a person died, first the family members notified a Funeral Director in Miami, then their Minister, the Masons, and finally the gravedigger. Twenty-five dollars was paid to the Masons for the grave space, and another five dollars was paid to the gravedigger for opening the grave. If the family could not afford to pay for either the grave space or gravedigger, the Masons gave everything to them with their blessings.
Funerals were held on Sunday after the 11:00 am services that ended at 2:00 pm. Due to transportation problems, many would walk to church and spend the day there until all services were over. On a Sunday when then there was a funeral, the church was usually crowded, but after the funeral, most did not return to church. This posed a problem for the ministers as their salaries were depended on donations and dues from all services. With a decrease in revenue, the ministers got together and informed the funeral directors that funerals would no longer be held on Sunday.
The last known burial was on June 17, 1955, and shortly thereafter, the Masons sold the cemetery to Philip Coleman. Quickly the property fell into disrepair and the headstones where either stolen or crumbled due to the weather. Overgrown, relatives could no longer find their loved ones.
Tired of the situation, Henry Givens filed a complaint with the state in 1989. The state investigator found that Philip Coleman did initially take care of the property but stop when he was no longer making sales.
Wanting to recognize the history of the black cemeteries in the Miami-Dade area, in 2004, the Miami-Dade commission passed a resolution urging the state to support the preservation of the cemeteries. In the resolution, it stated, “many of Miami-Dade’s early black pioneers are buried in Silver Green Cemetery.”
In 2005, a year after the vote, real-estate agent David Vega purchase the property. He installed a sprinkler system and had the grass cut on a regular basis.
Historians would like to know exactly how many people were buried there. This is a difficult task with so many headstones missing, and further complicated, due to the fact the gravedigger, Johnnie “Catman” Everett could not read or write. His young daughter tried to help him, but she didn’t know anything about keeping records.
Before he sold the property in 2005, Phillip Coleman used ground-penetrating radar to not only find graves but to also define the boundaries of the cemetery. Even though no documentation has been produced, Mr. Vega doesn’t feel it’s necessary to do the testing again. Further, he doesn’t think the cemetery is historic nor was it segregated. He has stated that he wants to put markers on all of the graves, but no work has been done.
There are only a handful of graves with headstones today. Two are World War I veterans, John Thomas Byrd and Julius Ross. The sign to the cemetery has long since faded, you can no longer read the words “Silver Green.”
Photographic by Kenneth Setzer of kennethsetzer.com