Every member of the House voted in favor of a bill that would help preserve Black cemeteries threatened with disappearing into obscurity.
Cheers broke out as the board lit up with green names for House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell’s bill (HB 49). Before its passage, stories from both Democrats and Republicans about forgotten burial sites in their districts poured forth.
“There’s a cemetery in my district, actually right around the corner from my uncle’s home. … We know the story and we know family who are buried there and it has always been a source of sadness that we can’t pay homage to them and make sure that their final resting place is sacred,” Miami Democrat Rep. Ashley Gantt said.
Republican Rep. Chip LaMarca of Lighthouse recalled a cemetery discovered in Deerfield Beach. “It was in the middle of a development project and the community came together and they honored it with a beautiful park.”
Forgotten cemeteries are a vestige of the Jim Crow era when the races were segregated, even in death. Black people were often buried on private property that later changed hands. Awareness of the problem grew when individuals discovered that Tampa’s public housing complex was built on Zion Cemetery, Tampa’s first African American cemetery.
The bill includes a $1 million appropriation for research on abandoned cemeteries and for grants to help repair, restore or maintain African American cemeteries. Similar legislation (SB 430) that Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell introduced awaits its third committee approval.
Driskell closed on the bill, noting that the discovery in Tampa has resulted in progress.
“It makes me so grateful that we live in a country that is always trying to attain that highest ideal of becoming a more perfect union, that we can look back at our past mistakes and we can course correct,” Driskell said.
“Can we help every family that’s been impacted? Maybe not individually, but we are doing something so great for their descendant communities. We’re doing something so great for our state, and honestly something very great for our young people.”
The case is currently making its way through the Fourth District Court of Appeals. But he’s hopeful the legislation will help fortify Westview Cemetery, which had been crumbling into disrepair before volunteers started pushing back.
“This is an exciting development for preserving our heritage and our history,” Phillips said. “There might be some enhancements that go further so that the abandonment and deterioration of African American cemeteries doesn’t happen and we can put some safeguards on so that these burial sites are not sold off.”