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Florida Senate bill creates task force on abandoned African American cemeteries

It would also require the state to contract with universities to notify descendants.

TALLAHASSEE — Spurred by reporting in the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill that would create a task force to investigate abandoned African American cemeteries.

Senate Bill 220 would still have to pass the Florida House, which did not give a similar bill a hearing this legislative session.

If it passes the House, the bill would require a task force to investigate abandoned African-American cemeteries around the state and submit a report by March 1, 2021, with recommendations for placing markers and memorials at the sites.

“A good community does not run from its history,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said. “Our state should not run from its history, either.”

The bill was prompted by reporting in the Times about Zion Cemetery, believed to have been Tampa’s first all-black cemetery, which was paved over for apartment buildings and forgotten. Since August, three more African American burial grounds have been found around Tampa Bay.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

The Senate also allocated $100,000 in its budget for memorials at the Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries. The bill would require the Department of State to contract with the University of South Florida and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to identify next of kin of people buried at those cemeteries. The universities would have to come up a list of possible descendants and their contact information by Jan. 1, 2021.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the task force would help restore dignity to people who were “lost to time and indifference.”

“There were those that thought that by building buildings or removing headstones, they could obliterate the memory and dignity of a people and families that were buried there,” Rouson said. “This should never happen again.”

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