By Daniel Figueroa IV
March 12, 2022
A few weeks ago, the bill seemed destined for the Governor’s desk.
A bill that would preserve, maintain and catalog the increasing number of re-discovered Black cemeteries is now considered dead, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Fentrice Driskell.
“It’s tough. It’s definitely a mixed bag. I’m really proud of the momentum that we built up on this issue and around the bill. We’ve even gotten national attention for the work we’re doing on Black cemeteries and are part of these national stories of how this happened not just in Florida, but around the country,” Driskell said. “I look at this as another step in the process. I’ve been around the Legislature long enough to understand you don’t always get everything you want in a single Session.”
HB 1215, the abandoned African American cemeteries bill, had been a labor of love for Driskell. The bill would have created an Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Division of Historical Resources. The office would’ve focused on the coordination of research, repair, restoration and maintenance efforts at abandoned Black cemeteries, but would extend to all historic cemeteries as well.
The bill sought to staff the office with three full-time employees at an estimated cost of $200,000 per year. It also sought funding for grants to pay for some of that work and created an Abandoned African American Cemeteries Advisory Council.
A few weeks ago, the bill seemed destined for the Governor’s desk. HB 1215 passed all of its House committees with unanimous support. And Driskell, a Democrat, received bipartisan praise for her work on the issue.
“It’s been a labor of love over the last two years and good to get this thing moving,” House Infrastructure and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jayer Williamson, a Santa Rosa County Republican, said last month. “I just want to say congratulations. You’ve done a great job working this issue over the last couple of years.”
But a Senate version of the bill (SB 1588) carried by Tampa Democrat Sen. Janet Cruz, didn’t fare as well. That bill didn’t make it to a single committee stop. Driskell said she’s already working to make sure her cemeteries bill eventually sees the light.
“We have to continue to raise awareness, talk about these issues, highlight when communities around the state find abandoned Black cemeteries in their areas and continue to build out public support so that we can finally get it passed in both chambers,” Driskell said. “I started having conversations around what we can do to bring it back in the House next year and what other strategies we might be able to apply in the Senate.”
Driskell said her first attempt to get some legislation addressing cemeteries took two Sessions as well. She began working on establishing a task force to address Black cemeteries shortly after a 2019 Tampa Bay Times investigation led to the discovery of hundreds of forgotten graves under a Tampa public housing development. The cemetery, Zion, was one of the first Black cemeteries in Tampa. It was built in 1901 and by 1929 had been systematically erased from city records, allowing the land to be developed with no regard for the dead buried there.
Soon, other forgotten cemeteries meant to house Tampa’s Black residents were rediscovered. Ridgewood Cemetery was found under King High School, and another cemetery is believed to be beneath a part of MacDill Air Force Base. Others have been rediscovered around the Tampa Bay area and state as well. Even as the bill was making its way through the legislative process, more burial sites were found in Tampa Bay.
Driskell and Cruz successfully passed legislation last year allowing the task force to be created. It met numerous times ahead of the current Session and submitted a 200-page report to the Legislature outlining recommendations. Those recommendations became HB 1215 and SB 1588.
But Driskell said all wasn’t completely lost. She was able to secure $750,000 in funding to the state’s curriculum so that education on abandoned Black cemeteries is included in Florida schools.