Florida’s Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task Force met for its fifth — and likely penultimate — meeting Thursday as the group finalized its list of policy recommendations and continued work on a final report.
One of the top takeaways: Lawmakers must understand the job is not done. The report will include a list of known and researched cemeteries, such as Zion in Tampa. But it will also contain speculated and not-yet researched sites where cemeteries are suspected, including at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.
“Sometimes the Legislature, from my experience, thinks if it’s in the background, ‘we don’t have to worry about it any more. It’s not our problem,'” Keenan Knopke said. “I would like to make sure that they understand clearly that this problem is growing, and the fact that we’re finding more and more, not, ‘yep, we found all of them.'”
The rediscovery of Zion Cemetery beneath a Tampa housing complex spurred the unearthing of lost, forgotten and abandoned Black cemeteries throughout the state. The Task Force was formed earlier this year with the mission to submit a list of policy recommendations to the legislature along with a report on the status of abandoned African-American cemeteries throughout the state.
The Task Force agreed it’s also important to look at how Florida got to this point. Jeffery Moates pointed to Florida’s racist treatment of Black citizens throughout history with laws promoting gentrification and segregation.
“It’s clear that at some point in the past, after Reconstruction more or less failed and Plessy versus Ferguson allowed for that kind of equal-but-separate indication, … marginalized African-American communities were told to find another place to bury your dead,” Moates said.
That led to one of the Task Force’s biggest challenges — are these even abandoned cemeteries?
Abandoned is often associated with neglect. But the cemeteries the Task Force is looking at, and those continually being discovered, were often systematically removed from the record. At its last meeting, the Task Force voted to adopt the language “undiscovered, unaccounted for, unrecorded, forgotten, lost, erased, abandoned, neglected and stolen African-American cemeteries and burial sites.”
“These places are never abandoned. They’re never erased,” Moates said. “They are indelible parts of communities writ large. These are places that are never forgotten. They’re never lost like you lose a set of keys.”
The Task Force broke its policy recommendations into four areas: Identification and Protection; Maintenance; Education; and Memorialization.
For Memorialization, the Task Force recommended establishing a state program for setting up historical markers at designated sites.
For Education it recommended establishing curricula to teach Florida students the history of the cemeteries; grants to identify, repair, preserve and research cemeteries; and funding to add sites to the University of South Florida’s Black Cemetery Network.
Under Maintenance, recommendations were made to modify current law to allow authorized persons on private property where there is “credible evidence” of a cemetery. The report will also expand the definition of credible evidence to include obituaries, oral histories and other previously excluded items. It will also encourage inclusion of cemeteries in conservation easements and the use of eminent domain to preserve cemeteries.
The largest group of recommendations, though, came under Identification and Protection.
There, Task Force members recommended creating the Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Division of Historical Resources. The office would have three full-time employees, including one dedicated to Black cemeteries. The office would be a keeper-of-the-realm of sorts, keeping track of cemeteries, coordinating with stakeholders and making further policy and practice recommendations. It would also build and maintain a website cataloging rediscovered cemeteries and telling their stories. The Task Force also recommended creating an advisory council to provide guidance for the new office.
The Task Force also recommended expanding the definition of “legally authorized person” to include community members when direct descendants can’t be found and strengthening penalties to protect cemeteries in the future.
Yvettes Lewis said she wants to make sure penalties and fiscal responsibility are felt by local governments.
“I don’t think the State should have to pay for what local government did to create this problem,” she said. “And I don’t want the local governments to get off from accepting responsibility for what happened.”
Members plan to finalize the report and recommendations in a meeting at 10 a.m. Dec. 17.