While there was no debate, there was plenty of discussion Tuesday as Rep. Fentrice Driskell‘s Abandoned African American Cemeteries bill unanimously passed the House Government Operations Subcommittee.
The bill (HB 1215) would create a Historic Cemeteries Program within the Division of Historical Resources to coordinate research, repair, restoration, and maintenance efforts at abandoned African American cemeteries. It also creates a Historic Cemeteries Advisory Council and makes it easier for the state to preserve rediscovered cemeteries.
Driskell drafted the bill based on a report from the Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries. Driskell served on and helped start the task force. She and Sen. Janet Cruz sponsored legislation last year to create the task force after a 2019 Tampa Bay Times investigation that helped uncover a forgotten cemetery beneath a city-owned housing development. That led to the rediscovery of several segregated cemeteries in Florida meant to inter Black residents.
“Historically, African American cemeteries were not subject to regulations, up keeping and other necessary efforts to uphold the dignity of the deceased as compared to their counterparts,” Driskell said. “Moreover, the land on which African American cemeteries were contained at times was sold without any regard to those who were buried there. We now find our chance as a state to continue to work together to honor those who were forgotten and oftentimes degraded.”
The bill passed the committee without a single “no” vote. But not before committee members from both sides of the aisle praised the Tampa Democrat.
“When we were made aware of the abandoned cemeteries, particularly in Tampa Bay, in our area, I wasn’t even elected yet, and you went right to work on it,” Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner said. “It is a very daunting task because there’s so many abandoned cemeteries.”
Palm Beach Republican Rep. Rick Roth praised Driskell for her stick-to-itiveness. Driskell took up the fight as soon as cemeteries began to be found.
“This is a bittersweet journey you’re on,” he said. “There’s a lot of tough things that you’re learning. You’re dealing with a lot of tough issues. You’re dealing with people that have been harmed and people that have been neglected. And we just want to thank you for the great job you’re doing.”
Driskell has a growing reputation for respect and support among her colleagues. Last year, she saw a significant victory in negotiating the passage of police reform bills aimed at greater accountability and transparency to improve relations between police and the public, especially within the Black community. Democrats had previously seen tougher resistance to achieving those reforms.
Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Republican representing east Hillsborough County, said her work was eye-opening. And the committee’s Democratic ranking member Rep. Kevin Chambliss said the work will help all.
“What I like about this effort is that even though it was a task force effort focused on African American cemeteries, the work product that comes out of it is going to be able to help all people of Florida,” he said. “I can really appreciate that. Your hard work is an inspiration to us all.”