As more erased cemeteries are discovered, lawmakers act to preserve and honor history
TAMPA, Florida. – On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commissioners learned of 45 new unmarked graves and burial sites on county property, just as the state Legislature considered a bill that would find and save these sites across Florida.
Anthropologists from the University of South Florida briefed county leaders on a report investigating cleared cemeteries and burial sites for African Americans and other groups. Their findings highlight a growing need to discover them, preserve history and remember the deceased.
“It’s never too late to respect the families and the humans who have been looked down upon in our past,” said State Senator Janet Cruz (D-Hillsborough County).
Cruz said she and state Rep. Fentrice Driskell are on a mission to honor the past statewide.
“We think there are probably around 5,000, maybe 6,000 abandoned cemeteries, and those are the ones we think there might be. There might be a lot more that we don’t know because they were lost or stolen,” Cruz told FOX 13.
Last year, their legislation established an Abandoned Cemeteries Task Force which made recommendations on what to do about such sites. At a subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, Driskell told lawmakers how his new bill, HB 1215, would make those suggestions a reality.
“One of the most exciting things about this bill is that it will create the State Department‘s Office of Historic Cemeteries that can help not just African American communities, but all communities figure out what to do next. when these types of cemeteries are discovered,” Driskell (D-Hillsborough County) said at the meeting.
Driskell added in a statement, “I am proud of the efforts we are making at the state level to address abandoned cemeteries, and especially African American cemeteries that have been neglected, stolen, or abandoned. These are of a pervasive statewide issue that requires the State partners with local communities, and it is an honor to bring HB 1215 this legislative session to create an Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Division of Historic Resources of the State Department.If passed, my legislation would establish this office to protect and preserve abandoned sites and forgotten cemeteries and to serve as the link between state and local governments, which is needed more than ever. »
Cruz said the bill would also establish a basis for reporting finds and prioritizing memorialization of the dead.
“It’s just our commitment to say, it happened. It was a different time, but we live here and now, and we’re going to make things better,” Cruz said.
Driskell’s bill has gone through several committees so far, but Cruz said their work isn’t done yet. They still have about three weeks to push the bill through the 2022 legislative session.
Zion Cemetery in Robles Park, Tampa
Ridgewood Cemetery at King High School, Tampa
MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa
People’s Cemetery, Hillsborough County
Lincoln Cemetery, Saint Petersburg
Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg
Frank Crum Building, Clearwater
Greenwood Cemetery at Curtis Fundamental and Palmetto Elementary School, Clearwater