Nestled against Interstate 4 at Orange Camp Road — across the street from the proposed Automall — is an African-American cemetery more than 100 years old.
Suber Memorial Gardens at 2800 Frontage Road is the final resting place of some of Lake Helen’s earliest residents.
The cemetery, once a peaceful walk down country roads from Lake Helen’s African-American community, was severed from Lake Helen by the construction of I-4 in 1959.
The tranquility of Suber Memorial is threatened on all sides by development.
The dense neighborhoods of Victoria Park are 1,000 feet to the west. The Automall will be about the same distance to the north, and the rest of the land around is prime real estate.
“Most of my family is in that cemetery,” said Loretta Dukes, a longtime Lake Helen resident.
Sharon Jackson, another fifth-generation resident, said the same.
Every African-American family in Lake Helen can find a family member’s name on a headstone there, according to Lake Helen resident Vernon Burton, who is advocating for Lake Helen to annex the historic burial place.
“Why, when I-4 was built, did no one think well enough of the citizens to bring Suber Memorial into the city?” Burton said.
It’s about time, Dukes and Burton said, that Lake Helen’s African-American neighborhood — and its cemetery — are recognized as equal partners in the town.
“We pay taxes, but we’re not treated equal still,” Jackson said.
Dukes said it wasn’t until the past year that the city began edging the sidewalks in its southwest quadrant, known by some as Bradleyville, where most of the black residents live.
“The new mayor, Daisy Raisler, she’s done better,” Dukes said.
Several houses in Bradleyville are more than 130 years old. But the houses, churches, and the Suber cemetery do not currently have historical designation.
“The most historical part of Lake Helen isn’t recognized,” Burton said.
“Well, the answer — you may as well ask, why weren’t the sidewalks maintained?” Burton said. “Why weren’t African-Americans allowed to be buried in Lake Helen-Cassadaga Cemetery?”
Burton, who lives in Bradleyville in a home built by his family, fears the neighborhood’s historic character might be endangered.
“We’re about to go through a slow kind of gentrification,” he said. “This community might go down in the history books as a small asterisk in African-American history.”
Everyone who has used the southbound I-4 on-ramp at Orange Camp Road has passed Suber Memorial Gardens, although its small sign is dwarfed by surrounding highway signage.
According to Volusia County documents, more than 12,000 people travel by every day.
The cemetery is named for Albert Suber, a former slave known as “Uncle Suber,” who was a mail messenger in Lake Helen for 31 years, beginning in 1886, two years before the city was incorporated.
Using horse and buggy, he picked up mail from the newly constructed Lake Helen railway depot and delivered it to the post office.
Before he died in 1917 from a stroke, Suber gave the parcel of land to his church, Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal, the first African-American church in Lake Helen. Mount Olive AME celebrated its 129th anniversary in July.
According to Dukes and Burton, the cemetery was often vandalized in the 1990s and 2000s, and getting help to stop the destruction was difficult.
“Lake Helen Police couldn’t respond because it wasn’t in Lake Helen, and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t find it. It wasn’t even on their radar,” Burton said.
Cemetery caretakers also have had to contend with illegal mudding in a nearby and now nearly dried-up lake behind the cemetery that once was used for baptisms, Burton said.
Eventually, fencing was installed around Suber, using leftover fencing that had been donated to the historically white Lake Helen-Cassadaga Cemetery, Burton said.
Suber Memorial is the final resting place of many veterans, whose graves will be decorated Dec. 15 in the Wreaths Across America event, which coordinates simultaneous wreath-laying ceremonies for vets at cemeteries across the United States.
It bothers Burton that the burial grounds are cut off from Lake Helen.
“The real travesty is that the people who built this city, like Uncle Suber, are no longer citizens,” Burton said.
But that could change, under the agreement recently reached by DeLand and Lake Helen regarding the Automall. The pact gives Lake Helen the right to annex Suber, as well as the Automall proper. DeLand has the right to annex everything else in the vicinity that’s west of I-4, along with a portion of the Automall site.
Usually, land has to be contiguous to a city to be annexed, but another agreement in the works between Lake Helen and Volusia County could allow the cemetery to become part of Lake Helen.
A cemetery committee, composed of members of four historical African-American churches, led by president Keith Smith, will meet in October to discuss annexation.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Smith said, “but it depends on the citizens really to decide.”
“I think it would be a good thing,” Dukes said.