Recently I supervised a class of students on a visit to the Historic Miami City Cemetery. This was the first municipal cemetery in Miami, Florida founded in 1897, on ten acres of “rocky wasteland” about a half mile to the north of what was then a fledgling city, sold by Mrs. Mary Brickell to the city for $750. That would be worth nearly $22,000 today. To put that in some perspective, a 1.25 acre parcel of land near where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay sold for approximately $100 million in 2014.
While it is a modest cemetery, spanning only 10 acres, and for someone like myself who spent his childhood in places of greater age, such as Philadelphia, and much greater age still, such as Ireland, it seems new, it is none the less a fascinating place to visit, filled with a great deal of local history. I will not delve into the history which would only interest those who are from Miami. However, for a small graveyard, it contains a significant number of grave stones which demonstrate that for a city boasting a mere 120 years, it has a strong history of connection with fraternal orders of every sort.
In the few short hours I spent in this site, I counted no less that 30 stones which belonged to either Freemasons or “Woodsmen of the World” and at least a handful that from their iconography were also Odd Fellows. Beyond that, there were Women who were members of the Order of the Eastern Star, and at least one grave bearing a woman’s name which also bore the Masonic Square and Compass. Since I know there are several feminine lodges in the Miami area, it is likely she was a Freemason.
It should be noted here, that as with most cemeteries in Southern US cities, this one is segregated by race and religion, containing Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Black sections. While these areas predominate, there are a few exceptions to the segregation. One of Miami’s Prominent early citizens and his family are buried in the Catholic section, although his wife was understood to have been of mixed race, a couple of the cities earliest black residents were also buried in what became identified as a “protestant” (white) section before segregation was established more formally, as was at least one famous Miccusukee Indian, Jack Tigertail, whose image graces the seal of the City of Hialeah, a few miles north of this graveyard. As an aside, Jack Tigertail was murdered, apparently the victim of a business deal gone bad, meeting his maker due to a dispute over the price of egret plumes. He left behind a wife and three daughters. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Being Native American he didn’t have the resources to pay for a stone, and nobody else felt it necessary.
The first Jewish (Kosher) Butcher to live in Miami, Phillip Ullendorff, who passed away in 1923 is buried in the walled Jewish section of the cemetery, and his headstone proudly proclaims his masonic status.
One place, interestingly enough, where race or religion did not seem to exert any influence were in the military graves. There, blacks, whites, jews, and gentiles might be buried in common. This of course is ironic since it was not until after WWII that the military ceased to be segregated itself.
However, as suggested by the existence of a woman’s grave bearing the Square and Compass, “mainstream” Freemasonry is far from being the only, or perhaps even the predominant form of Freemasonry represented in this cemetery. Quite a few headstones found in the Black section of the cemetery proclaim the active presence of Prince Hall Freemasonry in Miami. These stones, in fact none of the stones I saw, give any indication of what the mason’s affiliation was, so while it is easy to assume that in most cases, they would represent what is popularly considered “regular” Freemasonry, there is no way without doing some extensive research, to determine what their obediences or jurisdictions were. In the case of the Black Freemasons (and I choose to use the term black in preference to African American because much of the early population of Miami of African ancestry were from the Caribbean rather than North American in origin) there were many jurisdictions to choose from and not all would have been what is described today as “regular” Prince Hall.
One of the graves of Freemasons in the Black section which is in the worst condition of any of the Masonic graces, is that of Fred Dean, who lived from 1894 to 1924, a mere 30 years, proudly proclaims his status as a 32° Mason.
There are a number of tomb stones, as well as mausoleums which are the worse for wear. Some mausoleums have over the years replaced their original fancy bronze or ironwork gates with cement, due to repeated vandalism. Of course, tombs also suffered from the effects of several serious hurricanes over the past century. As a result, it is difficult to determine at times whether a stone was the victim of weather or the callousness of humanity.
Among the most interesting stones are those associated with the Woodsmen of the World. This fraternal organization was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. Root, who was a member of several other fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, founded Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) in Lyons, Iowa, in 1883, after hearing a sermon about “pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families”. Taking his own surname to heart, he wanted to start a society that “would clear away problems of financial security for its members.”
It was responsible for the erection of numerous distinctive tombstones depicting tree stumps across the country before 1930. Since 2015, it has been known by the name WoodmenLife. There are easily a dozen or more Woodsmen of the World stones in the Miami City Cemetery, including one which is included in the old walled Jewish Segment of the graveyard.
A few stones sported the three rings which signify membership in the Odd Fellows, and others have symbols which appear to be related to the Order of Knights of Pythias.
Whatever their affiliations, they have all gone to the eternal east, and it would appear that any petty, dogmatic, or sectarian biases relating to their membership in fraternal orders expired with them. Now that is something we shouldn’t need to die to experience.