House Speaker Chris Sprowls has appointed Rep. Fentrice Driskell to a task force to study forgotten and abandoned Black cemeteries, a panel she helped create this year.
Driskell and Sen. Janet Cruz, both Tampa Democrats, first filed legislation to establish the Task Force on Abandoned African-American Cemeteries in 2019, after a Tampa Bay Times investigation led to archaeologists finding hundreds of caskets at the site of a former African-American cemetery. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this year’s version of the measure (HB 37) into law last month after it received unanimous support in the Legislature.
“Representative Fentrice Driskell’s tenacity in uncovering the history of Florida’s African-American cemeteries will serve her well on this task force,” Sprowls said in a statement. “Through her work, I am confident the task force will provide overdue respect and honor for those buried across the state.”
Driskell also thanked Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican.
“I hope the good work done by the group will allow so many Floridians to learn about their history, provide much-needed answers, and give long overdue dignity to the deceased,” she said.
Zion Cemetery in Tampa 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, with plans for a memorial in the works despite hitting roadblocks.
Nearly 1,000 burials were made at Zion Cemetery, but that’s just one of several abandon cemeteries that have already been unearthed in Tampa Bay in recent years.
The task force will begin meeting no later than Aug. 1. Its findings and recommendations will go to the Governor, Senate President, House Speaker and Minority Leaders in both chambers by the start of next year.
The team’s mission includes studying the unmarked or abandoned African-American cemeteries and burial grounds across the state and recommending strategies for identifying, recording and preserving such lands and records in a manner that ensures dignity and respect for the deceased.
The 10-member panel is led by the Secretary of State, who also appoints 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 select one lawmaker each to round out the task force, making Driskell Sprowls’ designee.
The hidden history of Florida’s African American cemeteries was brought to light in Driskell’s district by reporting from Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Bay Times. Guzzo was tipped off by cemetery researcher Ray Reed about death certificates Reed 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. Researchers have already found death certificates for 382 people buried at the site between 1913 and 1920, as well as 120 coffins.
That discovery started informal investigations around the state, which uncovered more African American cemeteries. Driskell said African American cemeteries had been discovered under MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, near Tropicana Field in St. Pete, in Tallahassee under a golf course, and in Jacksonville under a road.
Although lawmakers failed to approve the task force in 2020, they passed a state budget that included $100,000 for memorials at Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries. DeSantis approved that funding, spearheaded by Cruz, then-Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson and Sen. Darryl Rouson.
— Representative Fentrice Driskell (@FentriceForFL) July 9, 2021