Task force will memorialize African American cemeteries

Legislation creating a task force on preserving abandoned African-America cemeteries is now a reality. 

State Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa first introduced the bill, which garnered unanimous support in the Florida Legislature, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on Friday. It will go into effect on July 1.

The bill creates a 10-member task force that will begin meeting in August and must submit a report to the state by Jan. 1. According to the bill summary, the panel will “study the extent that unmarked or abandoned African-American cemeteries and burial grounds exist throughout the state and develop and recommend strategies for identifying and recording cemeteries and burial grounds while preserving local history and ensuring dignity and respect for the deceased.”

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The eventual report will detail findings and make recommendations that will be delivered to the governor, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House, and the minority leaders of the House and Senate.

Cruz got involved in the subject after the Tampa Bay Times reported the story of how developers had built over Zion Cemetery. That series of stories led to investigations of other forgotten African American cemeteries.

According to a March 9, 2020, press release from Cruz’s office, multiple abandoned cemeteries were re-discovered across the state after she initially filed legislation addressing the issue.

“In Tampa, there have been graves found at the site of King High School and MacDill Air Force Base,” the release said. “Most recently, in Jacksonville, historic headstones from Eastport Cemetery were unearthed by road construction. According to veterans grave registration documents from the 1940s, Eastport Cemetery is the resting place for many African-American veterans.”

Following passage of SB 220, Cruz said she was honored to have unanimous support for her bill. 

“This task force will restore honor and dignity to all those who came before us,” she said in a statement. “Florida’s history is incredibly unique. But it has been incomplete for too long. I am humbled to have the opportunity to advocate for those who have been forgotten from our state’s history and I look forward to seeing all of the great work this task force will accomplish.”

The bill signing came right before Saturday’s “How to Trace Your Ancestors” workshop at Saint Peter Missionary Baptist Church in Archer. Event organizer Nigel Rudolph, public archaeology coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), said keeping all eyes on cemeteries like Saint Peter’s Cemetery—located across the street from the church—is important.

“Cemeteries are a vital part of a community’s history,” he said.

Rudolph specializes in documenting African American cemeteries in nine Florida counties, including Alachua County. He’s working to make sure cemetery sites that had been miscategorized as white on the state’s master file are changed to African American.

Rudolph said he and his supervisor Jeff Moates, central region director for FPAN, along with historian Karen Kirkman, the Historic Haile Homestead president, all spoke in Tallahassee on behalf of the bill.

The bill describes the history of the issue: “following the end of slavery, African Americans continued to be subject to various discriminatory practices, including restrictions on burying the dead, which resulted in segregated cemeteries and burial grounds, and WHEREAS, unlike predominantly white cemeteries and burial grounds, African-American cemeteries and burial grounds were not subject to regulations and recordkeeping necessary to protect the dignity of the deceased, WHEREAS, as a result, many abandoned African-American cemeteries and burial grounds have been inadvertently discovered following years of disrepair and neglect when land is being redeveloped or has been sold.”

News of the bill signing gives Rudolph hope that more people will get involved in identifying and preserving cemetery sites.

“It’s been a public outpour of support,” he said. “It’s democracy in action.”

Rudolph added he hopes more people will also show interest in visiting and learning from cemeteries.

“Our society is built on previous societies and this is evidence of that,” he said as he stood among the headstones at Saint Peter’s.

He encouraged people to get out and explore—and don’t be afraid of cemeteries. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, before horror movies, cemeteries were places where people would picnic,” he said. “Let’s bring that tradition back.”

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