The Taskforce on Abandoned African American Cemeteries convened Tuesday in Tallahassee for the group’s first formal meeting since commissioned by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June.
Led by Secretary of State Laurel Lee, the 10-member team will study and develop strategies to address forgotten or otherwise abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds in the state.
Lee vowed the full support of the Department of State throughout the commission’s year-long study.
“We are ready to share any expertise or experience that will benefit the task force and are all honored to be part of this process,” Lee said.
Tuesday, committee members offered a brief introduction, familiarized themselves with the history of cemeteries and explored the relationship between state law and their mission.
Members of the taskforce include:
— Timothy Parsons (Chair)
— Althemese Barnes
— Sen. Janet Cruz
— Jaha Cummings
— Rep. Fentrice Driskell
— Antoinette Jackson
— Keenan Knopke
— Yvette Lewis
— Kathryn O’Donnell Miyar
— Jeffery T. Moates
The meeting brings to fruition a years-long effort by lawmakers to address abandoned cemeteries, which, in Florida, are not an emerging issue. According to a staff analysis, 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.
More recently, 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.
Notably, researchers have already found death certificates for 382 people buried at the site as well as 120 coffins.
“The key to it all is to find them, identify them and make sure they continue their place in history, going forward to generation after generation,” said Knopke, a taskforce member. “Otherwise, we will abandon them again, and we’ll lose all that culture, all that history and all the work that was done.”
The task force, which will meet throughout the year, will report its findings and recommendations to the Governor, Senate President, House Speaker and Minority Leaders in January 2022.