Florida Guardsmen receive accolades for historic cemetery preservation

By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Nov. 20, 2014) – The Florida National Guard was honored recently for its members’ efforts to clean up and restore one of Florida’s oldest African-American cemeteries.

During a Nov. 18 meeting of the St. Johns County Commission, the Florida Archeological Council presented the “Stewards of Heritage Preservation Award” to the Florida National Guard for the work done by volunteers who helped clear brush, trim weeds, and remove trash from the San Sebastian Cemetery in West St. Augustine over the past 17 months.

Lt. Col. Teresa Frank and her husband Mark were joined by Adjutant General of Florida Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw Jr. and Chief Master Sgt. Steven James of the 125th Fighter Wing in accepting the award on behalf of the National Guard for the cemetery cleanup efforts. The Florida National Guard Foundation and the West Augustine Improvement Association were also recognized for their efforts with the project to restore the dilapidated cemetery property.

Frank spearheaded the project – entitled “Operation Restore Respect” – to help clean up after years of neglect in the San Sebastian and adjoining Pinehurst Cemeteries. This allowed the volunteers an opportunity to identify more than 40 graves of veterans. Two of those graves identified during the project were from soldiers who served with the 103rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment shortly before the end of the Civil War.

Historic Resources Coordinator for St. Johns County Robin Moore explained that the efforts of Frank and other volunteers made a significant difference in instilling pride in the community and giving people access to the cemetery. He said there were previous efforts to clean up the cemetery, but the “passion and organization skills” of the Franks “made a huge impact on cleaning it up and also raising interest in the preservation of it. It gives us as managers of historic resources a kind of momentum to get others involved.”

The Stewards of Heritage Award is presented to individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to aid archaeological preservation, further research, educate or otherwise promote public awareness of Florida archaeology.

“It is a pretty huge difference that they’ve made and it gives us a foundation on which to move forward on long-term preservation,” Moore added.

Frank said the recognition for “Operation Restore Respect” was welcome, especially since she and her volunteers have learned quite a bit over the past 17 months about cemetery restoration.

“It feels awesome, especially because we had such an interesting start where we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Frank said. “And now we have come full-circle, being honored for our preservation of the cemetery.

“For a bunch of amateurs we have come a long way,” she added.