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After defeat, Tampa lawmakers vow to push abandoned Black cemeteries bill in next session

A cross unrelated to the New Hope Cemetery stands behind the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla. on March 15, 2022. (Lawren Simmons/Fresh Take Florida)
Fresh Take Florida
A cross unrelated to the New Hope Cemetery stands behind the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla. on March 15, 2022. (Lawren Simmons/Fresh Take Florida)

The state senator who proposed a bill to catalog and restore abandoned African American cemeteries across Florida said she is disappointed the legislation died in the just-ended session at the Capitol but isn’t giving up the fight.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D- Tampa, said she was very frustrated her bill was not taken up in the Republican-led Senate and plans to reintroduce the “Abandoned and Historic African American Cemeteries Act” during the next legislative session.

“There may be over 3,000 abandoned African American cemeteries across the state, sites forgotten and cruelly erased by history,” she said.

A companion House bill, sponsored by Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, passed unanimously in three House committees, with support from Republicans and Democrats. But it died last week after never coming to a full House vote. The stalled measure was not taken up in any Senate committees.

Cruz said that was aggravating and blamed Republicans, even though GOP support would be necessary next year for her to succeed.

“As was shown this past legislative session, the Republican majority in the Florida Senate was more focused on fanning the flames of their culture wars instead of working on meaningful legislation that would find and honor abandoned African American cemeteries,” Cruz said.

It’s not clear why the legislation failed, although Democrats in Tallahassee always have an unusually difficult challenge in the Capitol. No lawmaker publicly expressed opposition to it.

“The speaker could have brought it up (for a House vote), but he chose not to,” Driskell said.

The measure would have enacted some recommendations of a statewide task force that held public hearings last year on the lost burial grounds, including establishing the Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Department of State. The office, funded with $200,000 a year and three full-time employees, would have focused on restoration and research efforts for all abandoned cemeteries, not just those of African Americans.

The bill that created the task force on abandoned cemeteries last year took two sessions to pass. That makes Driskell optimistic.

“We’re already rethinking our strategy for next year,” Driskell said. “We’ll come back with additional bipartisan support next year.”

In recent years, Cruz and Driskell have been working to bring attention to the issue of abandoned and neglected Black cemeteries – many of which have been rediscovered across Florida under recently built parking lots, schools, housing complexes, and other infrastructure.

In Tampa, Driskell, and Cruz’s hometown, Zion cemetery was recently found under warehouses, a tow lot, and public housing. Meanwhile, not far from the Capitol, another abandoned cemetery was found behind a church in Tallahassee.

Though Cruz and Driskell’s bills did not pass, the pair managed to secure $750,000 in the new state budget to start an African American cemetery education program in Tampa Bay. Originally, the lawmakers had asked for $1.2 million for the program.

“Thankfully, there was a small victory in this year’s legislative budget… to preserve local African American history in Hillsborough County and begin educational programs about these abandoned cemeteries,” Cruz said.

According to the funding request, the program is intended to “preserve local African American history and cemeteries through place-based educational programming, curricular material to be embedded in K-12 classrooms, teacher professional development, and community workshops.”

“It's been wonderful to see the public interest in this bill even after it didn’t pass,” Driskell said. “It’s encouraging. We know many communities rediscover abandoned cemeteries and need guidance, and they want to know they can look for the state for guidance. “

In the meantime, Cruz and Driskell remain committed to pushing the “Abandoned and Historic African American Cemeteries” bills forward when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for the 2023 legislative session, which is scheduled to begin about a year from now.

“I proudly stand next to Rep. Driskell in this fight and will work with committee staff and my fellow senators to bring this issue home next session,” Cruz said.

Fresh Take Florida