Senators voted unanimously Monday to create a task force to find abandoned African American cemeteries, backing up a budget agreement Sunday to fund memorials.
That measure (SB 220), offered by Tampa Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz, would create the Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries to study forgotten or abandoned cemeteries across the state. Additionally, the bill calls on the Department of State to continue counting graves at the former Zion Cemetery in her hometown.
Cruz told the Senate she cares deeply about the city and its history.
“That also moves me to recognize the parts of our history that includes hate, divisiveness and tragedy,” Cruz said. “A good community does not run from its history. Our state should not run from our history either.”
She says nearly 3,000 such cemeteries have already been identified across the state.
Cruz and Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said they hope to ensure dignity and respect for the deceased now left unmemorialized.
“Though we cannot look into their eyes, we cannot talk to them. But we can tell their stories. This task force will begin to do just that,” Rouson said.
Cruz, Rouson and Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson successfully proposed an amendment to the Senate General Appropriations bill (SB 2500) that would set aside $100,000 for memorials at Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries. The House and Senate ultimately agreed to that deal after leaving it out of initial budget talks.
Both cemeteries served as burial grounds for the African American community during the segregation era. Graves at both sites have since been built over.
Zion Cemetery now serves as a backyard to Robles Park Village public housing. Researchers have already found death certificates for 382 people buried at the site between 1913 and 1920 as well as 120 coffins.
The Secretary of State will lead the task force and appoint representatives from the Bureau of Archaeological Research in the Division of Historical Resources, the NAACP, the Florida Council of Churches, the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, the cemetery industry and a local government. The Senate President and House Speaker would select one lawmaker each to round out the task force.
“Florida’s history is incredibly unique. But it has been incomplete for too long,” Cruz said in a statement. “I am humbled to have the opportunity to advocate for those who have been forgotten from our state’s history and I look forward to seeing all of the great work this task force will accomplish.”
House legislation (HB 121), carried by Reps. Fentrice Driskell and Dianne Hart, was not scheduled for a committee hearing.
In Jacksonville, where a Department of Transportation (FDOT) project conflicted with a cemetery years gone, federal and state legislators clamored for action.
According to Action News Jax, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson is pushing to have the remains of African American veterans moved to the Jacksonville National Cemetery. Their graves were disturbed by the FDOT project.
“This is pretty significant. [It’s] especially disturbing where the remains of veterans are laid and so we [have] got to do more,” Lawson said.
Lawson is readying federal legislation.