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Fight over who should run historic Black cemetery in Pompano Beach heads to court

Elijah Wooten stands with Sonya Finney, and points to the graves of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.
Gerard Albert III
Elijah Wooten stands with Sonya Finney, and points to the graves of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.

The Westview Community Cemetery sits on 15 acres of land in Pompano Beach on Copans Road between Powerline Road and Andrews Avenue. The cemetery is lined with white-painted cement vaults covering caskets. The first few rows are freshly painted in a holy-white that honors the dead, but the condition of the cement vaults gets progressively worse further from the cemetery’s entrance, like a blast-zone in reverse.

Most headstones, if they exist, are split or crumbling. Figurines of Jesus and the Virgin Mary lay on their side missing limbs. And, in the most egregious case, a vault is cracked so badly that the casket underneath is exposed to the harsh rain and sun and moisture of South Florida.

The abhorrent state of the historic Black cemetery is at the center of a legal battle over who is in charge of its operation, upkeep and land — some of which was sold to a developer who planned a industrial office park until it was voted down by the city’s Planning and Zoning board last November.

Many graves have fallen into a state of disrepair at the Westview Community Cemetery.
Gerard Albert III
Many graves have fallen into a state of disrepair at the Westview Community Cemetery.

The cemetery is run by a nonprofit board of four Trustees who were behind the 2020 sale. The board’s validity is being disputed in court by a new board, elected in 2022 by community members and made up of Pompano Beach residents, most of whom have family buried in the cemetery.

Cemetery's history dates back to 1950s

In 1952, Black businessman Paul Hunter donated the land — all 15 acres of it — to be used for burying Black residents after the city passed a racist law banning the integration of the city-run cemetery. Although the law has since been repealed, the cemetery still caters to mostly Black residents of Pompano Beach.

Burials are also inexpensive — $1600 — which caused financial challenges for the current board, according to their former chair. They sold what they said was an unused parcel of about 5 acres for just over $1 million in 2020 and vowed to use the money to revitalize the cemetery.

Community members haven't seen much improvement.

Residents challenged the sale of the land in court. That challenge failed.

The new owners, the development company KZ Copans, said they contracted a company to search for remains on the land but found none. Longtime city residents contest that claim.

The fate of what remains of the Westview Community Cemetery is now tied up in court.

In recent years, more public attention and awareness has emerged surrounding Black cemeteries and their erasure — usually caused by development.

In 2015, Deerfield Beach residents came forward with testimony that land purchased by a developer held remains of their family members. It took three separate archeological surveys to find remains. The land was then turned into a memorial park with support from the developer and the city.

'Anything I can do… I do'

Each and every morning, Elijah Wooten walks through the Westview Community Cemetery. On this particular morning, he's wearing a loose polo shirt, slacks and a Korean War Veteran cap pulled down over his gray hair that spills out from underneath and runs down as sideburns along his cheeks.

His loafers carry him across the unkempt field of the cemetery, a landscape that shifts from uncut grass and weeds to dirt that turns to mud after rain.

Cement vaults that cover graves are close together offering little space for Wooten to walk through. But Wooten comes often enough to know the easiest path through the congested cemetery while avoiding the small holes that dot the field. He’s got a slight wobble but keeps a good pace for a 91-year-old.

“Anything that I can do to make the place look better, I do,” Wooten says.

He stoops down to pick up a plastic bottle and small cardboard boxes and takes them to the dumpster.

Wooten served as chairman of the cemetery’s Board of Trustees from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

When he speaks about the cemetery his face is stern and certain. His eyes are sharp and don’t break contact. He was just finishing high school when the cemetery land was given to Pompano Beach’s Black residents.

The latest fight over who is in control of the land and whether or not a recent sale of part of the land is legal, is just another in a long list of battles that Wooten has fought throughout his life.

Elijah Wooten stands near the graves of many of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.
Gerard Albert III
Elijah Wooten stands near the graves of many of his family members at the Westview Community Cemetery.

Making his way to the southwest corner of the cemetery, he comes across his family’s graves. The stones over the caskets are smooth and polished and inscribed with names and bible verses. Cement vases holding aloe plants serve as markers for the Wooten family plot. They are among the most maintained of the land, which houses about 400 graves.

Land sale

In 2020, unbeknownst to the Pompano Beach community, two members of the Westview Community Cemetery board signed away 4.3 acres of cemetery land to Jacob Zebede and KZ Copans for $1.29 million.

A year later, Ed Phillips, Kevin Eason and Gloria Hunter-Brown sued the non-profit board after learning about the sale. They each had friends and family buried at Westview.

They sought to have the contract between the board and KZ Copans, a developer, voided. They claimed the board had been running afoul of their own bylaws, which prohibited sale of any cemetery land and required nine members. This board only had four.

They said the land was sold “unreasonably below market value” and was needed for “eventual expansion, especially because many of Westview’s members are descendents of those who are buried there and desire to be buried near their loved ones.”

That lawsuit failed.

Broward Circuit Court Judge Barbara McCarthy dismissed it on May 17, 2022.

In the filing, McCarthy wrote that Phillips, Eason and Hunter-Brown lacked “injury,” meaning that their claims did not prove they suffered harm by an act or omission from the Westview board. The trio appealed the ruling but were shot down again by the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.

'A second bite at the apple'

In January 2022, a group of residents upset at the state of the cemetery held a community meeting and started to vet candidates for a new board. They held elections in accordance with bylaws and formed a new nine- member board.

Those new board members are Connie McGirt, Kevin L Eason, Ollie Eason, Traniqua Hargrett, Quenton Thompkins, Jason Fuller, Lajill Holloway, Edward Phillips, and Sonya Williams Finney.

Last May, a group of four residents, including one newly named board member filed a lawsuit against the old board, alleging they changed bylaws to work in their favor, stopped holding meetings and elections and allowed themselves to be paid for serving on the board.

READ MORE: Places, people and history: New app maps out Black landmarks in Broward

Through the lawsuit, they hope a judge will rule that the newly elected members are the rightful Board of Trustees for the cemetery.

“I heard about what was going on, I just felt that it was wrong and I wanted to get involved because I wanted to help right the wrong,” said Williams-Finney who was elected to the new board.

Williams-Finney grew up in Pompano Beach and has family buried at the cemetery. Because of bad record keeping, she does not know the location of her family's graves. About 30 percent of the graves are unidentified, according to records.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the old-board’s lawyer Jonathan Heller, wrote that the new lawsuit is “trying to take a second bite at the apple, before a new judge.”

The judge in the case, Jeffrey Levenson, allowed the case to move forward and it is currently pending in county court.

'Better be careful what you ask for'

During a Pompano Beach Planning and Zoning Board meeting last Nov. 15, Keith Poliakoff, an attorney for KZ Copans, gave a presentation to the board and dozens of fuming residents of his vision for the future of the Westview Cemetery.

During a video portion of the presentation, workers are seen pressure washing and re-painting vaults that cover the caskets. That revitalization effort seems to have been halted after the video was produced. Only a few rows of vaults near the cemetery’s entrance were repainted and cleaned when WLRN visited the site in January. Paint buckets were left sprawled throughout the cemetery near vaults and headstones.

The money from the sale — about $1.2 million — would pay for things like painting and pressure cleaning the vaults, paving the roads and a new irrigation system, according to a budget Poliakoff presented. He also said the developer pledged another $600,000 if the zoning change is granted. That money, he noted, would be used for a digital archive project and other improvements.

The proposed budget for cemetery revitalization presented by Poliakoff in November 2023.
Pompano Beach Planning and Zoning Board
The proposed budget for cemetery revitalization presented by Poliakoff in November 2023.

The presentation lasted almost an hour and was frequently interrupted by outbursts from members of the community in attendance. When it came time for public comment, Wooten spoke up first.

“Paul Hunter’s body is in the cemetery and he gave it to the community. Not to the Board of Trustees to sell, but to maintain. 15 acres, not 10,” Wooten said, testifying that the vacant land that was sold had been used as a paupers grave when families did not have enough money for a funeral.

Dozens of other community members — most with relatives buried in the cemetery — spoke against the zoning change. Then Walter Hunter came to the microphone and was berated by jeers from the crowd. Hunter was the president and CEO of the cemetery board and initiated the sale of the land.

“The time has come to breathe new life into Westview Cemetery,” he said, calling the decision to sell the land “the most difficult decision that we could ever make.”

Poliakoff’s mission was to get the board to change the zoning for the land so that KZ Copans could construct an industrial office building there. He failed.

“The ownership will go back to the drawing board if it has to, and it will say, ‘okay, fine, if we have to turn this into a waste transfer station under the code, that's what we'll do.’ And sometimes, you know, you better be careful what you ask for,” Poliakoff warned community members.

The board voted unanimously against the zoning change. Tundra King, a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, chastised Poliakoff and some of her colleagues who wanted to see documentation of the dedication of the cemetery.

“I've heard you go back and forth as to ‘there may not be history that's in writing’ or ‘no one has been able to produce certain things in writing.’ You have the history sitting right here in the audience,” she said, referring to the dozens of community members.

“We know that a lot of things from the African-American community back in that time was not properly documented.”

Vacant land

The fight is not over. The Planning and Zoning vote was just a recommendation that the city and county now have from the board.

What those two governing bodies do and the result of pending litigation will shape the future of hundreds of Pompano Beach residents that wish to be buried near their families.

A Broward County judge plans to start hearing arguments from attorneys in March.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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