Bill to establish task force for abandoned cemeteries clears first House committee

Graveyards in cemetery Halloween composition day light
The Senate unanimously passed a version of the proposal last year, but the House bill was never heard.

A House proposal to create a panel to study forgotten or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds across the state cleared its first committee hearing Wednesday.

The bill (HB 37), which is sponsored by Tampa Democrat Rep. Fentrice Driskell, passed unanimously through the House Government Operations Subcommittee. The legislation would create a Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries to identify lost cemeteries.

The purpose of the task force is to develop and recommend strategies that will preserve this history and ensure dignity and respect for the forgotten and deceased,” Driskell said. “We now find our chance as a state to work together to think through the best ways to honor those who were forgotten and, oftentimes, degraded.”

The task force established by the bill would be led by the Secretary of State, who would also 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.

The Senate unanimously passed a nearly identical version of the proposal last year, but the House bill was never heard in committee.

Driskell referenced two abandoned cemeteries in Tampa, which she said served as inspiration for the bill. Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a $100,000 fund for memorials at Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries in the Representative’s district. The House and Senate ultimately agreed to that expenditure after leaving it out of initial budget talks.

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 at the site between 1913 and 1920 as well as 120 coffins. More than 3,000 abandoned cemeteries have been identified across the state, Sen. Janet Cruz, who is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 222), said last year.

“There was a time in our state when even cemeteries were segregated,” Driskell said. “Historically, African American cemeteries are not subject to the same regulations, up-keeping and other necessary efforts to uphold the dignity of the deceased, as compared to their counterparts.”

Driskell’s bill received applause from committee members across the aisle, including Palm Beach Republican Rep. Rick Roth, who referenced movements to remove statues that honor controversial figures as another form of erasure.

“In this time, when certain people — a minority — are trying to remove statues, remove references to the beginning of our country, and basically trying to erase our history, we have a proud history, and the idea that we have cemeteries that have been abandoned and built over to me is just beyond conscionable,” Roth said. “I just want to commend you for this great bill. We must do everything we can to protect our history.”

The bill is now onto its second of three committees.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


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