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Senate Approves Bill To Create Task Force On Abandoned African American Gravesites

Senator Janet Cruz speaking on the House floor.
The Florida Senate

Unmarked African-American burial grounds are scattered throughout Florida. Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) wants to fund and reinstate a 10-member task force to locate and preserve the abandoned cemeteries.

In 1998 the Florida Legislature created a Task Force on Abandoned and Neglected Cemeteries. Its job was to review and report on all unmarked grave sites. Members found close to half of the cemeteries in Florida are unmanaged because of a lack of funding. Jeffrey Shanks an archaeologist with the National Park Service spoke during a committee meeting about the task force’s findings.

"There could be as many as 1,500 of these historic abandoned cemeteries in Florida. And that’s a conservative estimate.," Shanks said.

Shanks says he actively does work to find more abandoned cemeteries. His most recent discovery includes 40 unmarked graves at a Tallahassee golf course. Slaves who worked on former plantation lands are buried there.

"This is the fifth cemetery like this that I’ve worked on in Florida and Georgia over the last seven years," Shanks said.

And Shanks says while usually unmarked gravesites are endangered by new construction, climate change is also a threat.

"In Florida, because we’re on the coast here they’re being threatened by erosion. I know this cemetery right now at a state park in Jacksonville that is eroding into the Saint Johns River," Shanks said.

Researchers also recently discovered another gravesite under an apartment complex in Tampa.

"Not far from here in Tampa are the graves of African Americans who were loss to time and indifference. Across the state of Florida such cemeteries called lost are being found," Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St.Petersburg) said.

Rousin is talking about Zion Cemetery. It contains more than 120 caskets now built over by a 66-year-old public housing complex.

Now, lawmakers like Rouson and Sen. Cruz want to re-establish the task force. The members will be charge with looking specifically into unmarked African-American gravesites and making recommendations for memorializing them. Cruz is sponsoring the bill.

"It’s my hope that for Floridians who are not provided dignity respect and equal protection in their life nor in their death will be honored and memorialized appropriately as we seek to fully understand this tragic piece of Florida’s history," Cruz said.

The measure also puts aside $50,000 for a memorial at Zion Cemetery. As well as another $50,000 for a memorial at King High School campus in Tampa where Ridgewood Cemetery was once located. Evidence of 145 suspected graves were found there, with historical records showing up to 250 people were buried there.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.