TAMPA — Nearly four years after the discovery of Tampa’s erased segregation-era Zion Cemetery under apartment buildings, warehouses and a tow lot, a bill has been approved by the Florida Senate and House that will assist in the search, maintenance and memorialization of other such burial grounds throughout the state.
The bill, titled Abandoned and Historic Cemeteries, was sponsored by Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, in response to the Tampa Bay Times’ investigations into erased Black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area. Zion was the first to be found.
The House unanimously approved the bill on April 19. The Senate approved it today by a vote of 39-0.
This was Driskell’s second attempt to pass this bill. It failed during last year’s session.
The bill, which would take effect on July 1, creates the Historic Cemeteries Program staffed with three full-time employees within the Division of Historical Resources of the Department of State.
The program’s duties include:
- Developing guidelines for the identification and maintenance of abandoned and historic cemeteries.
- Developing a curriculum related to abandoned and historic cemeteries.
- Researching and recording abandoned cemeteries with an emphasis on Black burial grounds.
- Establishing a priority for the placement of historical markers for erased, forgotten, lost, or abandoned Black cemeteries.
- Providing grants for conducting research necessary to identify and contact the relatives and descendants of persons buried in abandoned Black cemeteries. For fiscal year 2023-2024, $1 million will be appropriated.
- Creating a Historic Cemeteries Program Advisory Council that provides guidance and recommendations to the program.
The bill prioritizes Black cemeteries because those are typically the ones that have been erased in Florida.
In recent years, archaeologists have confirmed that six sites throughout the Tampa Bay region are home to erased or forgotten graves tied to pioneering Black communities. Another five sites have been identified as likely locations but are not known to have been surveyed for graves.
Nine of those cemeteries were for Black residents only.
Ridgewood Cemetery discovered on Tampa’s King High School campus was for the poor and unidentified, though almost all the nearly 270 people buried there were Black.
College Hill Cemetery, believed to be under the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot, was for Cuban and Black residents. More than 1,200 were buried there.