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Tending to those forgotten

Rose Cemetery used to be the only place in Tarpon Springs where blacks could be buried, now it's one man's project to pay back those who helped him.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published October 2, 2005


[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Alfred Quarterman, 76, president of the Rose Cemetery, ponders the work ahead of him to maintain the cemetery. "My biggest challenge is to keep the grass cut," says Quarterman. "I've not gotten help from the City of Tarpon Springs with the grass. It's been very frustrating."

TARPON SPRINGS - Alfred Quarterman remembers Ms. Henderson's jewels of wisdom.

He remembers how on any given evening you would find Mrs. P.L. Knox smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Colas on the front porch.

And he remembers the respect Edward Dorsett got when he walked in a room.

They're long gone now.

But for a time, they took care of him, setting an example and teaching him values that served him well as an adult.

Now he takes care of them.

"A lot of these people did a lot for me," Quarterman says, standing under a droopy Spanish moss beside his family's plot at the Rose Cemetery. "They were people who believed in saving, and buying instead of renting, and helping each other out."

Quarterman, 76, is the cemetery's lone caretaker. The 5-acre swath of uneven land on Jasmine Avenue used to be the only place in Tarpon Springs where blacks could be buried.

But over the years, it had fallen into disarray, with hundreds being buried in unmarked graves.

By the time Quarterman got involved in 1991, it was an overgrown mess.

"It was horrible," he said. "I couldn't believe people had let it get like that."

Quarterman quickly took the lead in gaining nonprofit status for the Rose Cemetery Association. The next move was to kick-start a cleanup and awareness campaign.

These days the cemetery is a lot cleaner. A new 16-foot wrought-iron gate greets visitors. And 630 of the nearly 2,000 graves are marked - an effort spearheaded by Quarterman. The Florida Department of State's Bureau of Historic Preservation placed the cemetery on its registry of heritage sites.

Then there were the weeks of local and national headlines when it was discovered that a black Confederate soldier was buried at Rose.

Headlines are harder to come by these days.

Mostly it's a one-man show.

Quarterman, a small-framed ebony man with straight gray hair and eyes that seem to be lit from within, drives down from Holiday about three times a week. He spends the time between tending to the cemetery and doing paperwork at a small rented house-turned-office on Harrison Street.

Walking through the cemetery recently, he sweeps pine needles and dried roses from a new grave. He mourns, not so much for the deceased, but for the people who haven't brought fresh roses.

"They go to the funeral falling down and screaming," he says.

Then they leave the cemetery, have dinner and "they never come back again," he says with a weary look in his eyes.

The calling to care for those easiest to forget is a blessing and a curse to Quarterman.

But it is a calling nonetheless.

When Quarterman and his wife, Hazel, 75, returned to Florida in 1991, he knew he needed to give back.

The couple had moved to New York in their 20s. Those were years spent lindy-hopping at the Savoy Club and having babies. He worked his way up the ladder of the New York City Transit Company, going from bus driver to director of payroll in 20 years.

He kept the lessons he learned growing up close, he said.

As a teen he lived in a rooming house in Clearwater because the city had the closest high school for blacks. He worked at McCrory's Five and Dime to pay the rent. There was little time to goof off.

"My mother wouldn't let me come home most of the time," he says. "She didn't want me to get distracted. She wanted me to learn as much as I could."

But when he did come home it was like everyone in the community was working to keep him on the right track.

"Don't grow up and be a hoodlum," Stella Henderson told him.

Stay in school, said his godmother, Maggie M. Wilson.

Now Henderson and Wilson are buried at Rose.

So are Quarterman's parents, grandparents, eldest son, and a cousin.

He has a space there too.

These days, very few are willing to pay $600 for a space in the cemetery, and volunteers are even harder to come by.

When a big cleanup is needed, Quarterman said it's easier to hire a work crew from the jail than pull together volunteers. Quarterman calls the lack of community support his "downfall."

When the 16-foot iron gate was installed, three millionaires showed up, but none were family of the dead. Quarterman's voice gets sad when he talks about the poor showing for the unveiling of the state registry marker.

"I'm not a terrible fella, but I have to ask, "Is it something about me?"' he says. "Some say it's envy, but I just came back to give."

Some understand the need to help.

"A great deal of this town was built on the backs of those people buried there," said longtime Tarpon Springs resident Tony Leisner, 64, an online instructor for Walden University . "Neglecting the cemetery is a terrible way to acknowledge that."

Leisner helped get the wrought-iron gate built and bringing in ground-penetrating radar to locate lost graves.

The technology also was instrumental in finding another portion of the cemetery dear to Quarterman's heart.

In a small corner close to the fence in the rear of the cemetery are the infant graves. Only one has an aluminum marker. A few crumpled markers, chewed up by a lawn mower, are strewn about. Quarterman doesn't know exactly how many are there, but he wants to find out.

He's hopes one day someone will come along who wants to know, too.

"I'm getting old, let's deal in reality," he said. "This doesn't have to be buried with me."

--Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 445-4162 or njohnson@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 2, 2005, 01:57:16]


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