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Florida bill to help protect Black cemeteries heads to DeSantis

Five erased Black cemeteries have been discovered throughout the Tampa Bay area since 2019.
Cardno Archaeologist KC Allen uses a trowel as she explores a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa.
Cardno Archaeologist KC Allen uses a trowel as she explores a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa. [ Times (2020) ]
Published May 4
Updated May 4

TAMPA — There had long been whispers that erased segregation-era Black cemeteries were hidden throughout the Tampa Bay area, but the rumors were not taken seriously, and no one went looking for the burial grounds.

Then, in June 2019, the Tampa Bay Times published a report questioning if Zion Cemetery was under warehouses, abandoned storefronts and public housing on the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. in Tampa.

Less than two months later, archaeologists confirmed that Zion was still there, setting off a search for more erased cemeteries on both sides of the bridge. Another four have since been found.

Now, the state wants to help find and protect such cemeteries.

Tampa Democrats Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell sponsored legislation to identify, map and mark Black cemeteries that are either unmarked or abandoned throughout Florida. That is now on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature after passing with unanimous support.

“The passage of House Bill 37 in both chambers is the culmination of a multi-year effort to bring honor and dignity to those who were buried in African American cemeteries that were long forgotten and sometimes intentionally erased from public records altogether,” Driskell said in a prepared statement.

Driskell and Cruz released a joint statement that said around 3,000 abandoned Black cemeteries are dispersed throughout the state. “The issue is one of historical significance and substantial in its scope.”

According to the bill, the task force will have 10 members — a mix of elected officials, archaeologists, church leaders and historians — who will also be charged with proposing preservation strategies and legislation.

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

The other erased Black cemeteries discovered in the Tampa Bay area are Ridgewood Cemetery on Tampa’s King High School’s campus, Port Tampa Cemetery on MacDill Air Force Base, St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery on the FrankCrum campus in Clearwater, and North Greenwood Cemetery on an unused Clearwater parcel owned by the Pinellas County School District.

And there is an ongoing search for more. There might be Black cemeteries under an Odessa horse ranch, a West Tampa shopping plaza on Columbus Dr. and the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot in East Tampa.

Archaeologists also recently rolled ground-penetrating radar across a Tropicana Field parking lot in search of a white cemetery that had a Black section.

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“The intentional abandoning of these historically African American cemeteries is a continuation of the dark legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our country and state,” Cruz said in a statement. “To finally address this issue directly, even incrementally, is an immense step forward.”