Woman saves historic African American cemetery in Oakland

Florida woman is living proof that one person can make a huge difference

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A Florida woman is living proof that one person can make a huge difference.

Betty Wade grew up in Oakland. Her grandfather and uncle were laid to rest on one of the town’s hills overlooking a lake. She never knew where the graveyard was until she had moved away, retired and returned home.

During her retirement years, she said a local church asked her to help save the historic Oakland African American Cemetery.

She learned road construction was threatening to encroach on the land where her family members and other Black people had been buried from 1882 through the 1940s.

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“The Turnpike Authority was gonna claim some land as imminent domain and we didn’t want that to happen,” Wade said.

Wade was also concerned about the new homes that were being built in the area. In order to save the sacred ground from being bulldozed like she says other Black cemeteries have been, she took the matter to court.

“What finally happened with the court is they named me trustee,” Wade said

Wade worked to make sure the land would be managed by the town of Oakland.

But she remained hands-on.

“We just spent an exorbitant amount of time out here studying, trying to get the history, and gathering as much as we could,” Wade said.

After researchers came out and used ground-penetrating radar to assess the land Wade estimates there are 250 to 300 people buried at the site.

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Some of the headstones are well preserved. Many gravesites are unmarked. Wade said they couldn’t afford proper markers, PVC pipes and pink flags are the only signs someone lived and was buried there.

Wade’s grandfather does have a headstone. James Walker was a farmer who died at just 37 years old, leaving behind a young widow and three children during the last pandemic.

Some of the other grave markers, like the special shell-covered ones, give a peek into the lives of the other people laid to rest just beyond the fence in the back of the Longleaf at Oakland housing community off Colonial Drive and Sansparilla Road.

For almost 20 years now Wade has been helping to preserve their stories.

“If we forget it, we forget who we are, and where we came from, what our relatives went through in order to get us here, and I am just a believer we should never forget history,” Wade said.

In 2021, Oakland was awarded a $25,000 grant for work at the site which included putting up a new fence. Wade and the town of Oakland just applied for more assistance to help with ongoing efforts.

You can reach out to the town of Oakland to set up a private tour of the cemetery.


About the Author:

Tiffany produces the 4:30 p.m. newscast and has been with News 6 since January 2019. She also produces Florida's Fourth Estate podcast. She graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in radio/TV. Tiffany has lived in Central Florida since 2004 and has covered the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman trials and several hurricanes.