Abandoned cemeteries task force adds ‘teeth’ and new category to policy framework

Graveyards in cemetery Halloween composition day light
Members said "abandoned" might not be the most accurate description of those cemeteries, as many were systematically ignored.

Policy recommendations from the Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task Force are getting more teeth and a new category after the group’s fourth meeting Tuesday.

Task Force members spent much of the two-and-a-half hour meeting discussing ways to strengthen and fine-tune the language in its now four-tier policy framework.

During a meeting last month, the Task Force established identification and preservation, maintenance, and education as primary areas of focus. The Task Force doesn’t draft legislation, but it is required to submit policy recommendations to the Governor and Legislature by Jan. 1.

Task Force Chair Timothy Parsons put together a draft of recommendations for each category. Member Antoinette Jackson kicked off the meeting by recommending memorialization be added as a fourth category. Her motion passed unanimously.

Task Force members said the Legislature could create a website where stories of cemeteries and individuals interred there can be shared.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell said the state can look to existing technologies for inspiration. She said QR codes can be incorporated into memorials, which can then be used to tell stories similar to the Florida Stories app from the Florida Humanities Council.

“It’s a really great app and it has walking tours of different locations in Florida and really wonderful stories,” the Tampa Democrat said. “Maybe that is something we can think about with respect to QR codes and coming up with some walking tours or self-guided tours of the cemetery sites. And there’s already a model for it.”

The Task Force said it could start by adding historical markers to unearthed cemeteries.

Task Force members also made sure any recommendations used the term Black or African American. Many of the recommendations came to them using phrases like “historical cemeteries” in asking legislators to establish advisory committees and state-run offices to oversee abandoned African American cemeteries.

“I appreciate the sensitivity to multiculturalism and diversity and all that,” Althemese Barnes said. “But this was established because there was a problem. There is a problem.”

Some of the recommendations for maintaining and identifying cemeteries, along with the protections afforded to any found, piggybacked off current protections in place for Indigenous burial sites. But much of that enforcement falls on local agencies and government.

But Yvette Lewis said those are the same institutions that allowed so many cemeteries to be lost.

“If there’s not oversight, then there’s no need for us to really be here,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to try to be skeptical or critical of a local government. But again, I am sorry. This is how I met all of y’all. Because local government failed. In some cities and counties local government did these things. I’m speaking about Tampa.”

The push to identify and preserve lost Black cemeteries started after a Tampa Bay Times investigation led to the discovery of hundreds of forgotten graves beneath a Tampa housing complex. The discovery attracted national attention and soon more and more Black cemeteries were discovered. In many cases, like Tampa, some seemed to be purposefully looked over and left off of historical records.

The Task Force is looking into increasing penalties for violations and recommending a messaging campaign similar to those regarding environmental issues as ways to give an advisory committee more power.

One of the most crucial additions was how to address these cemeteries in the first place. Labeling the cemeteries as “abandoned” has been criticized as not being accurate since it implies neglect. But these aren’t cemeteries that were neglected. Rather, they were systematically and purposefully forgotten or ignored.

“I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to focus on that right out the gate,” Keenan Knopke said.

After some debate about what one word would be suitable, Task Force members decided to use “undiscovered, unaccounted for, unrecorded, forgotten, lost, erased, abandoned, neglected and stolen African-American cemeteries and burial sites.”

Other recommendations included establishing research grant programs for maintenance, preservation, memorialization, restoration and repair; allowances for state inspections of private property believed to contain a cemetery; and establishing curricula in public schools focusing on the cemeteries.

The Task Force will meet twice more in December to finalize its recommendations.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].


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