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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Effort to protect abandoned African American cemeteries stalled last year. Things are different now

Headstone with a "welcome" sign close up
Rae Riiska
/
Fresh Take Florida
A welcome sign and other trinkets adorn a headstone in Rose Cemetery, a predominately Black cemetery, in Tarpon Springs on Jan. 28, 2023. The cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery in Pinellas County.

Bill sponsor Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said that after four years of pushing the measure, it has become a “labor of love.”

An effort in Florida’s Legislature to repair and preserve abandoned and historic cemeteries throughout the state – including lost Black burial grounds – is making strides among lawmakers this year after similar measures stalled in 2022.

The legislation over abandoned and historic cemeteries would enact recommendations made in a report by the Task Force for Abandoned Florida Cemeteries, which was formed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021 to find ways to identify and preserve neglected cemeteries across the state.

The House bill unanimously passed its second committee vote Tuesday as it winds its way through the legislative process. Its sponsor, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said that after four years of pushing the measure, it has become a “labor of love.”

Last year, Driskell’s bill passed three House committees with unanimous bipartisan support, but wasn’t sent to the House floor for final passage. A companion bill in the Senate never received a committee hearing or vote; the reason it stalled remains unclear.

This year is different. Lawmakers on the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee last week unanimously passed the Senate’s version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach.

“Now it’s moving in both [houses], and we’re very excited,” Driskell said. She added: “Part of the secret to our success in the House was that we were able to get great bipartisan support.”

Both houses in the state Legislature are controlled by Republicans.

Driskell said both Democratic and Republican colleagues had discussed with her their concerns about abandoned cemeteries in their own districts.

On the Senate side, Powell, who is serving his first term, said he has discussed the bill with Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and believes she’s on board. Her office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I did talk to the Senate president about the legislation prior to it being placed on the agenda and it sounded like something she was interested in,” Powell said.

He said the bill would give Florida the chance to tell the story of lost African American cemeteries – nearly 3,000 may have been abandoned, Driskell has said.

“We’re working really, really hard and being diligent in terms of making sure that our voice is heard, making sure that the people who have been neglected for many years are recognized,” Powell said. “This legislation rises to the level that when people in the community hear about it, they want to come out and support it.”

The House bill would create the Historic Cemeteries Program within the Florida Department of State and fund three full-time positions, in addition to providing an additional $1 million for grants to communities and groups across the state. It requires the program to provide those funds to research, repair, restore or maintain abandoned African American cemeteries. If the legislation were to pass the Legislature and be signed by DeSantis, it would take effect on July 1.

The state’s hands have been tied with helping communities locate and restore their cemeteries, Driskell said this week.

“When people and communities reach out, no longer will we have to say, ‘I’m so sorry. There’s nothing we can do,’” Driskell said.

Both bills have picked up support in committee hearings from historians, educators and others.

Florida’s neglect of its cemeteries is a disgrace, said David McCallister, a Pasco County lawyer who was an unsuccessful 2018 GOP Florida House candidate.

“There is no land more sacred than a burial plot in a cemetery,” he said during a Senate hearing earlier this month. The hearing was for another bill, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, that would increase penalties for vandalizing historical monuments and could limit the ability of local governments to move monuments that political leaders no longer want publicly displayed.

McCallister said he spoke up for the cemeteries bill, which was also on the committee agenda that day, because he supports the preservation of all historical lands in Florida.

Headstone for Robert Edwards Jr. with people sitting in the background during a ceremony
Rae Riiska
/
Fresh Take Florida
The gravestone of a U.S. army veteran stands in Rose Cemetery near a ceremony recognizing members of the community who have helped with restoration efforts of the predominately Black cemetery in Tarpon Springs on Jan. 28, 2023. The cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery in Pinellas County.

Having a dedicated state program for cemeteries, with staffers responsible for the issue, will make it easier for the public and organizations to get information, said Annie Delores Sloan, president of Miracles 3 Inc. Her group is a Tallahassee-based nonprofit that works to restore Florida cemeteries.

“It will centralize a place where we can go and know where the cemeteries are located,” she said.

Lonnie Mann, membership director of the Panhandle Archaeological Society, told lawmakers that after researching his family history with ease, he wanted to help a group of people locate an African American cemetery in Leon County.

“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I know how to do that. I’ll help you,’” Mann said. “Well, it was a fairly humiliating experience in this particular case. How darn hard it was.”

Near Tampa, descendants of people buried in local cemeteries shared the same sentiment. They held a ceremony in January at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Tarpon Springs, where many of the town’s Black community members are buried.

Rose Hill’s five acres are scattered with shade trees, headstones and temporary markers for graves that were recently found.

Kathleen Crockett, 67, of New Port Richey, grew up in Tarpon Springs visiting the cemetery. Her great, great grandfather, Richard Quarls, a Black Confederate Civil War veteran, is buried there.

Crockett said she has watched the cemetery go downhill – overgrown by trees and weeds. Its upkeep neglected due to a lack of funding The current cemetery board, which she serves on, has worked hard to clean the space and continue locating grave sites.

“I want to know when we drive in to bury our loved ones that it is a place you look at and you say, ‘Oh, I don’t mind putting my loved one there,’” she said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at llannigan@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.

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