Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell have refiled bills creating a panel to study forgotten or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds across the state.
The Senate unanimously passed a nearly identical version of the Tampa Democrats’ proposed Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries (SB 222/HB 37) this year, but the House considered neither that bill nor its counterpart from the lower chamber. However, lawmakers agreed and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved — despite issuing more than $1 billion in vetoes — a $100,000 tranche for memorials at Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries in the Senator’s hometown. The House and Senate ultimately agreed to that expenditure after leaving it out of initial budget talks.
The Secretary of State would 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.
Zion Cemetery served as burial grounds for the African American community during the segregation era. The site now serves as a backyard to Robles Park Village public housing. Researchers have already found death certificates for 382 people buried there between 1913 and 1920 as well as 120 coffins.
Cruz and Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who helped spearhead the legislation, said in March that they hope to ensure dignity and respect for the deceased now left unmemorialized. More than 3,000 abandoned cemeteries have been identified across the state, Cruz said.
Cruz told the Senate she cares deeply about Tampa and its history.
“That also moves me to recognize the parts of our history that includes hate, divisiveness and tragedy,” she told senators during a floor session. “A good community does not run from its history. Our state should not run from our history either.”