Tampa Rep. Fentrice Driskell has been working to pass a bill that would preserve the history and dignity of African Americans buried in Florida cemeteries.
The bill was on its second reading Tuesday. It is now ready for a full House vote.
Abandoned and neglected burial grounds are not an emerging issue in Florida. A burial ground task force mobilized by the Legislature in 1998 reported that 40% to 50% of the state’s cemeteries are neglected or abandoned, according to a staff analysis.
Cemeteries used to be segregated, and there was a disparity between the way White cemeteries and Black cemeteries were maintained.
“Historically African American cemeteries were not subject to the same regulations and upkeep and treatment necessary to uphold the dignity of the deceased and their counterparts,” Driskell explained.
“Moreover, the lands on which African American cemeteries were contained at times were sold without any regard to those who were buried there,” Driskell said.
The issue with abandoned cemeteries was brought to light in Driskell’s district by reporting from Paul Guzzo for the Tampa Bay Times. Guzzo interviewed cemetery researcher Ray Reed, about a neglected Hillsborough County burial ground. Reed tipped Guzzo off to death certificates he had come across listing a burial ground called Zion Cemetery that Reed could not find.
After months of research, Guzzo and reporting partner James Borchuck discovered more than 800 people were buried along North Florida Avenue in what was believed to be Tampa’s first all-Black cemetery.
To dig into the issue, the bill (HB 37) would have the Department of State (DOS) create a 10-member Task Force to identify unmarked or abandoned African American burial grounds throughout the state.
“The purpose of the task force is to develop and recommend strategies that will preserve the history and ensure dignity and respect for the forgotten,” Driskell said.
The task force’s findings and recommendations would be reported to the Governor, Senate President, House Speaker and Minority Leaders in both chambers.
Under the bill, the task force would hold its first meeting by Aug. 1 and would sunset its mission by March 11, 2022.
Tampa Sen. Janet Cruz sponsors companion legislation (SB 222). That bill is still working through the committee process.