Editor's Note: Due to a reporter's error, this story was corrected to state Dr. Devonte White is an Inverness native. Also, White's uncle, Charlie White, is still alive. The Chronicle regrets the errors.
It isn’t hard to miss Pine Hill Cemetery.
Surrounded by the 22-acre Oak Ridge Cemetery near the corner of Hill Street and Line Avenue in southern Inverness, the 1.8-acre gravesite for 322 known people has been trying to stay noticed throughout its 131-year-old existence.
“You wouldn’t know Pine Hill was even back there unless you had family there,” Dr. Devonte White said. “It is history, but I feel that history is being tucked away, in the back.”
White can’t say how many of his own relatives are buried at Citrus County’s oldest African American cemetery alongside the other longstanding county family names he grew up with.
“There’s a whole lot,” he said. “We know every single person out here.”
For as long as the 29-year-old Inverness native can remember, White witnessed a number of county residents and organizations preserve Pine Hill as best they could with weeding, mowing and tidying fallen Spanish moss and pine needles.
White stepped in himself to pick up trash and straighten out graves with others before and after he left his birthplace in 2010 as a Citrus High School graduate to get his doctorate and teach criminal justice at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
It wasn’t until a couple months ago when White noticed more was needed for the county-owned burial ground and its “stark difference” to the Inverness-owned Oak Ridge Cemetery across the small streets bordering Pine Hill.
“I wanted to find out why we have two cemeteries on the same land but look totally different,” he said. “It’s not a big cemetery. Why is it not being maintained as well as the huge cemetery over there?”
White isn’t a stranger to grassroots action. He spearheaded the 2020 renovation of the basketball court at Alexander Park in Hernando.
Now he's on a new mission to help bring attention, funding and movement to "spruce up" Pine Hill, and he’s already reached out to county officials for support and guidance.
County Administrator Randy Oliver said county staff, which mows and tends Pine Hill’s grounds, would be willing to partner with White like they did before.
“He did a phenomenal job with the basketball court,” Oliver said. “If he can achieve the same type of thing, I think that would be something positive for the community.”
White doesn’t want to be the only one suggesting improvements. He’d like to host town hall meetings with community leaders and elders who’d know what’s best for Pine Hill.
“They’ve earned the right to say, ‘Hey, this is what we should have,’ because they’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “I want to give a voice to the voiceless.”
White said he does want to focus on planting better grass, paving the single dirt road bisecting the cemetery and installing bigger and additional signage to help direct lost motorists to Pine Hill.
“A lot of times people just pass this thing and not even know,” he said.
According to Chronicle articles citing the Citrus County Historical Society, a land permit for Oak Ridge was granted in 1889 to Alfred Tompkins, the founder of Inverness, deeding it specifically for the burial of whites only.
Early after its establishment in 1890, Pine Hill Cemetery became the resting place for indigents and Blacks. No matter who’s buried at Pine Hill, White said, they deserve the same respect as those interred just next door.
“There’s no mistaking that one cemetery looks different than the other,” he said, “and it’s been going on long enough to where the voices for Pine Hill have fallen on deaf ears ... so I want to be that spark.”
Lettering on many of Pine Hill’s cluster of headstones — some just simple limestone markers — have weathered away. White said he’d like to work with the county historical society to identify unnamed graves.
F.R. Kiye, who died in April 1919, has the oldest known grave. Other family names at Pine Hill include: Bellamy, Ross, Thomas, Smith, Chester, Gibbs and Goolsby Jackson.
Samuel White, White’s grandfather and the first African American from Citrus County to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, was buried next to White’s grandmother, Blonese.
Antonio Hicks, the 16-year-old Citrus High School student-athlete who collapsed during a football practice in late September, was laid to rest at Pine Hill Cemetery.
For many years until the 1980s, Eli White from the East Dampier Street Funeral Home oversaw Pine Hill.
Inverness offered to take it over after the city got the title for Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1981; however, local Black churches took over responsibility instead.
After teenagers used Pine Hill as their hangout, the Citrus Garden Club in October 2001 adopted the cemetery, where they’ve organized volunteer cleanups four times a year since.
"The club quickly recognized the need for some tender-loving care," First Vice President Lesly Smith said.
Smith said the first cleanup in November 2001 filled 28 large trash bags filled in paper, bottles and other waste.
“It’s in our mission to beautify,” she said, adding the public’s welcome to join the garden club for its next cleanup on Nov. 10.
Club members, along with the VFW, also plant flags on the graves of Pine Hill ahead of Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
Downed tree limbs littered Pine Hill in September, Smith said, but the cemetery’s appearance has improved since.
“It looks pretty good,” she said, suggesting White’s recent involvements may have already spurred results.
Pine Hill, White said, is too important to be ignored.
“It’s history, it’s history, and you can’t hide your history,” he said. “It’s historical to me, and something has to be done.”