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Florida bill seeks to create task force for abandoned African American cemeteries

The House proposal unanimously passed its first committee.
Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

TALLAHASSEE, Fla — A proposal from Florida's House that would create a statewide task force for abandoned African American cemeteries unanimously passed its first committee hearing.

The task force, which would be led by the Secretary of State, would have appointed representatives from the NAACP, the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network, the Bureau of Archaeological Research, the Florida Public Archeology Network, the Florida Council of Churches, and local governments.

Speaking in front of the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Wednesday, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D.-Tampa), said early conversations of a task force began in 2019 after Zion cemetery was rediscovered in Tampa.

The city's first African American burial ground was destroyed in the early 20th century to make room for all-white developments, according to an archeological report. Zion's rediscovery in 2019 came when a whistleblower led archaeologists to hundreds of graves underneath a public housing development and two neighboring businesses in Tampa.

Ground-penetrating radar and physical archaeological digs later confirmed the presence of coffins underground. Radar images also confirmed graves on an adjacent towing lot and a property owned by local businessman Richard Gonzmart.

In total, archaeologists detected more than 300 graves from the cemetery.

Since then, other abandoned cemeteries have been discovered across Hillsborough County - the most recent one was uncovered earlier this month at FrankCrum staffing firm in Clearwater.

"We now find our chance as a state to work together to think through the best ways to honor those who were forgotten and, oftentimes, degraded," Driskell said.

The bill will now have to pass two more committees before being voted on by the full House.

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