Florida’s Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force finalized its report to the legislature during its sixth and final meeting Friday. It also marked the conclusion of the work the Task Force set out to accomplish when it began meeting in July.
“This is an important step, I think, in helping the entire population of Florida — maybe even the country — in serving as an example of why it’s important that we identify these,” Task Force Chair Timothy Parsons said. “Not just because they’re cemeteries, but because these cemeteries affect people today. They have a real impact on people’s lives, their existence and their treatment.”
The rediscovery of Tampa’s Zion Cemetery following a Tampa Bay Times investigation uncovered a Florida secret hidden in plain site. In the first half of the twentieth century, local governments in Florida systematically erased many majority-Black cemeteries from record in the name of progress. Cemeteries once lost have been rediscovered all across the state. Studies, like one conducted recently in St. Petersburg, have shown how racially motivated laws further marginalized Black communities and allowed local governments to statutorily wipe some of those cemeteries from the record.
“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,” Task Force member Jeffery Moates said during a meeting last week.
The Task Force was formed following the passage of legislation brought forth by Tampa Democrats Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell. It’s mission was 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 and how to memorialize and preserve rediscovered cemeteries.
Cruz and Driskell were also Task Force members.
“When Sen. Cruz and I first conceptualized the legislation in this process, you never know what might get passed and what won’t,” Driskell said. “And to see this come to fruition in such a powerful way is very motivating.”
The Task Force broke its policy recommendations into four categories: 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 and funding channels. The Division of Historic Resources is already in the process of establishing cemeteries as a funding priority as well.
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 also expands the definition of credible evidence to include obituaries, oral histories and other previously excluded items. It also encourages 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 will 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 recommends 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.
The report also expands the idea of “abandoned” cemeteries to include language describing the cemeteries as “undiscovered, unaccounted for, unrecorded, forgotten, lost, erased, abandoned, neglected and stolen African American cemeteries and burial sites.”
Parsons said recommendations from each member were incorporated into the final report. Yvette Lewis had been one of the Task Force’s most heard-from members. Lewis is also the president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP. She’s been working on getting local governments to be held accountable for their roles in erasing so much Black history from Florida since the Zion discovery and is still fighting for more accountability and acknowledgement of cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area.
Lewis got emotional Friday. She said the Task Force’s work shows why learning good and the bad parts of U.S. history are so important, especially as it relates to historically discriminatory treatment of Black Americans. She said it’s even more important in the face of things like Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.” The recently unveiled policy proposal would statutorily ban critical race theory from Florida schools.
Critical race theory is a graduate-level academic framework that looks looks at U.S. race relations through a critical lens and acknowledges racial disparities in the country’s founding and those that have persisted within society and its institutions. It’s never been a part of Florida’s curriculum, but has become a major conservative talking point. Lewis said that mindset only perpetuates the continued marginalization of Black Americans.
“I don’t understand why we continue this conversation. I don’t understand why I have this color on my skin, but it’s here,” Lewis said through tears. “I just hope and pray that everybody understand that this is so important. That we learn everybody’s history. Not just African American history. Jewish history. Hispanic history. It’s so important to the root of everyone’s soul that they know where they came from.”
It’s now up to the Legislature to accept or reject any or all of the Task Force’s recommendations. Parsons said bills based on Task Force recommendations are already being drafted for the 2022 Legislative Session.
December 17, 2021 at 5:11 pm
I live in Jacksonville, FL. Is anyone aware of abandoned cemeteries in this area?
December 19, 2021 at 7:31 am
I am absolutely positive a number of them exist there (as everywhere in the nation), and some portion of those will never be found as they are now under parking lots and buildings, or simply bulldozed away.
I’m also quite sure the legislature prefers the problem to go away quietly after they blow some smoke and pretend they put out the fire.
As usual, it will take local action to get much done.
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