TAMPA, Fla. — Thursday marked a major step forward in the effort to find and save destroyed African American cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area and across the state after two local legislators filed bills to establish a historic cemeteries program through the Florida Department of State.
“Our bills want to memorialize the abandoned African American cemeteries as well as educate people on the history of these important resting places,” said Sen. Janet Cruz.
The goal is to have one place to keep records of abandoned African American cemeteries as well as a statewide commitment to finding those that have been lost or destroyed.
The bills also call on the Florida Department of Education to establish a curriculum on the history of the cemeteries and how they were erased.
Lawmakers say archaeologists' 2019 discovery of hundreds of graves from Zion Cemetery under apartments and businesses in Tampa sparked the legislation.
"Zion cemetery, and potentially 1000s more just like it were cruelly erased from the history and public records, desecrating the graves of so many Black men and women and children who were laid to rest there,” said Sen. Cruz.
A number of other destroyed African American cemeteries has since been discovered in the Tampa Bay area, including graves at King High School in Tampa as well as at a Clearwater school and business. There are also searches at MacDill Air Force Base and Tropicana Field.
"Because we know that while we cannot change the past, we can do our best in present times to remedy historical wrongs and secure the respect and dignity that is owed to every Floridian regardless of their race or ethnicity,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who filed HB 1215 alongside Sen. Cruz’s SB 1588.
“…I'm very honored to be hearing House Bill 1215 this legislative session, and I'm doing so on behalf of every African American Floridian whose family's graves were neglected, abandoned, stolen or forgotten,” said Rep. Driskell.
Sen. Cruz and Rep. Driskell said they used the recommendations of a state task force on abandoned African American cemeteries as guidance for writing their bills.
Both lawmakers also were the catalyst for creating the task force, which was also inspired by the discovery of Zion Cemetery in Tampa.