Associated with Church
Time buries South Brevard cemetery
By LAURIN BRACEY
TODAY Staff Writer
"As much as I can remember, I think this is the area," Viola Matthews said, pointing a thin finger into a thicket of palmettos and scrub palms. "If there were any markers, though, they were on wooden boards and they'd be rotted away by now." In a yellow cotton dress and house slippers, the 65-year-old Malabar woman stands at the edge of the dirt road, peering through a mesh of leaves and scraggly limbs. The row of vegetation is a premonition of what lies beyond. It gets worse - thicker, darker and hotter, even though it is early morning. It stretches for more than two acres with nothing to distinguish one cluster of foliage from the next. Nothing except the woman's memory.
It is 40 years ago. In her mind's eye the foliage dissolves into a clearing. There are voices singing from inside a small wooden church. The congregation has come to the Piney Grove Baptist Church to eulogize W. T. Johnson, Matthews' first husband, dead at the age of 25. "He got killed," she said, her profile forbidding further question.
In a wooded area behind the church, Johnson is buried next to the grave of his father, Ed Johnson. There are no headstones, only small wooden markers. Sometime later, two more markers Will be placed in the soft, upturned earth, designating the deaths of Matthews' two daughters, a 3-year-old and 1-year-old. The deaths and the church - destroyed by fire in the early 1950's - cling to Matthews' memory like the smell of charred wood.
"It has been a long time," she said Saturday, as she inched into the overgrowth. "But, yes, I believe this is the area where they were buried." The undeveloped land lies about a block north of Malabar Road. A pair of Florida East Coast Railway tracks separates the small burial ground from the all-white Malabar Cemetery, restored last year by a troop of Eagle Scouts. The Malabar Cemetery is recorded on the town plat map. There is, however, no town record of the black cemetery or the Piney Grove Baptist Church.
Last month, a Brevard company received approval from the Malabar Planning and Zoning Board to switch the zoning on a piece of property in the area from agricultural to commercial. According to Larry Whitney of Baird Realty, if the zoning change is approved by the town council, Palm Homes Inc. hopes to construct mini-warehouses on the land.
"We had heard rumors that there were some bodies buried along the railroad track, but we had no idea where or even if that was true," Whitney said. "We were hoping with all the publicity (surrounding a recent public hearing before the zoning board) that we would find out where," he added. "Nobody wants to unearth a cemetery."
To see the Malabar cemetery from the Piney Grove Baptist Church, one would have to look northeast, Matthews recalled. "It seems like that's the way it was," she said. Spreading the pages of a record book on top of the trunk of his car, Whitney pointed to three parcels of land. "If it is the way you remember," he said to Matthews, "the land where Palm Homes may build is quite a distance from where the church was. "This (development) wouldn't affect that piece of property at all," he added, prompting a shared sigh of relief.
Although Matthews' recollections of Piney Grove and its cemetery lack official evidence backed by the record books, her memories gained credence through the remembrance of other longtime Malabar residents. The memories of Richard E. Stone Sr. are vivid. "I buried people in it," the Cocoa funeral director said. "The last one I buried was almost 50 years ago."
As a former employee of the funeral home, Melbourne resident Harry Goode, Sr. recalled a different funeral. "The cemetery was just north of the Malabar Road, just block or two, and there was a little, tiny wooden church," Goode said. "I remember it was a very sad funeral, very sad," he added. "I think it may have been a child."