Bill To Create Task Force On Abandoned, Neglected African American Cemeteries Is Back Before The Legislature
Two Florida lawmakers are once again backing a bill to create a task force to study how many abandoned African American cemeteries exist in the state. Members of the task force would recommend strategies for identifying, recording, and memorializing those cemeteries.
Gloria Jefferson Anderson is standing in a grassy field near the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church in Tallahassee. The wind whips past her and into the nearby woodlands of Miccosukee Greenway, where she says her ancestors are buried.
"The elders say they remember when this graveyard was here. But we don't know what happened to the markers, the headstones," Anderson says.
Anderson has been going around the community, collecting oral histories in the hopes of finding and memorializing her family's graves. But before any memorial can be placed, the state has to authenticate the site as an abandoned cemetery. The state sent cadaver dogs to survey the area last November and is preparing a report on its investigation. Oral histories and state reports show there's a good chance the location has gravesites. If true, Anderson says she can finally find the generation of her family that were former slaves and tenant farmers.
"In this day, it would mean that we are connecting to that generation that we knew nothing about," Anderson says.
Anderson isn't the only one wondering where her ancestors are buried. A task force on abandoned and neglected cemeteries was formed more than two decades ago. It projected there were 1,500 lost African American cemeteries in the state and expected that number to go up as more are found. Last year, two lawmakers pushed a bill to study how many abandoned Black cemeteries still exist in Florida. It came after the discovery of Black cemeteries in Tampa, several that had been buried or paved over by apartments and roads. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa), says the measure was challenged by then-state affairs committee chairman Blaise Ingoglia.
"And I think it made him uncomfortable to think through, 'okay, so what happens if there was an abandoned African American cemetery and someone built a commercial property on it or a road over it?' It's really complex issues, and it gets into property ownership and property rights, but the thing of it is we can't continue to turn a blind eye to this because we know it exists," Driskell says.
The bill died in the House without ever getting a hearing. Still, Driskell remains hopeful that 2021 will be the year the measure moves forward. She says events like George Floyd's death, civil unrest, and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol have put America in a very different place than it was last legislative session.
"At the root of it, it's America's past with respect to racism, and so I think that we are paying attention to that more consciously as a society and we are looking for opportunities to address that and to move past it and to heal, but you cannot heal unless you truly understand what the history was so that that's how you learn from it and don't repeat it," Driskell says.
Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) is also backing the bill. She says it's not unusual for a legislative proposal to take a year or two to get passed.
"It has to meet all the committees on both sides and then get to the floor and then get to the governor's desk. And although this legislation didn't pass last year, we were able to pass $100,000 out of appropriations which was designated to memorialize both Zion and the cemetery that's located within the King High School property," Cruz says.
This year, the bill was temporarily postponed at its first committee stop in the Senate because Cruz is quarantining after coming in contact with someone positive for COVID-19. But she's confident it will get a hearing soon.