TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — An effort to address historically forgotten African American cemeteries and renew the dignity of those interred in them reached a new legislative step, as Tampa Bay lawmakers filed bills to correct what has been called historic wrongs.

“The underground, when given a platform, can expose some real evil. And as we heal we have to not forget our past for fear of reliving it. Americans, Floridians, Tampanians, are really strong and resilient. So together we truly are unstoppable,” State Sen. Janet Cruz said.

Cruz thanked advocates across the state, including Rep. Fentrice Driskell and members of the Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force, who “supported this fight to honor, recognize and protect abandoned African American cemeteries in Florida.”

“This journey began with the rediscovery of Zion Cemetery in Tampa. A historical African American cemetery that was purposely forgotten and later built upon. Zion Cemetery, and potentially thousands more just like it, were cruelly erased from the history and public record, desecrating the graves of so many black men and women and children who were laid to rest there,” Cruz said.

The legislative push for finding, marking, memorializing and restoring abandoned African American cemeteries in Florida started in 2019, when Cruz and Driskell learned of the rediscovery of Zion Cemetery, which was located underneath a property owned by the Tampa Housing Authority.

According to THAFL, Robles Park Village, a public housing project, was built on top of 1.5 acres of land that were originally part of Zion Cemetery.

“In response to the rediscovery of Zion Cemetery, Representative Driskell and I filed and passed legislation to establish a task force within the Florida Department of State with a mission to identify these abandoned cemeteries and offer recommendations on how to properly honor and recognize the people that are interred there,” Cruz said. “After months of hard work and determination, I’m proud to say that my task force colleagues and I have completed our work, and submitted our final recommendations to the governor and to legislative leadership.”

Cruz said she and Driskell marked a new chapter of the effort, having filed Senate Bill 1588 and House Bill 1215, which would enact the recommendations of the task force into law. She said the bills, if passed, offer a comprehensive solution to identify, protect, and maintain abandoned cemeteries in Florida, particularly African American ones.

“Our bills want to memorialize the abandoned African American cemeteries, as well as educate people on the history of these important resting places and Senate Bill 1588 and House Bill 1215 will create a historic cemeteries program and an associated advisory council within the Division of Historical Resources at the Florida Department of State, which will coordinate the state’s efforts around the historic cemeteries,” Cruz said.

According to the senator, the program will be innovative and serve as a “central body for recording the abandoned cemeteries in Florida’s master site file records, it will develop guidelines for the identification and maintenance of abandoned cemeteries, and will operate as a liaison “to organizations that are reaching out to and working on the abandoned cemeteries.”

She also said the legislation would create opportunities for the Florida Department of Education to create a curriculum about the abandoned cemeteries, allowing Florida students to “learn about the deep history of these sacred grounds.”

Cruz said she and Driskell were proud to take the findings of the task force and make them a reality, and that together, they would be able to make a positive impact on “this important issue.”

Rep. Driskell said the effort to address the issues surrounding cemetery issues have been a lengthy process.

“I have to tell you that this has been a long time coming, and you know as Sen. Cruz mentioned we first filed this bill in 2019,” Driskell said. “Couldn’t get the traction that we needed, came back in 2020, pushed for it in an even more bipartisan way, and were able to get the support we needed and passed it unanimously. And now the task force has worked so hard in conjunction with the department of state, and come up with what I think are very thoughtful proposals.”

She said the proposals should be implemented, “which is why we filed this legislation.”

If passed, Driskell said the legislation would ensure the work continues into the future. She said she was proud to carry the legislation through her position as policy chair for the Florida House Democratic Caucus.

“I’m doing so on behalf of every African American Floridian whose families’ graves were neglected, abandoned, stolen, or forgotten. Over the past several months, the task force has worked very diligently to try to meet that task with honor,” Driskell said. “So what you’ll see in the bill is a statewide commitment to the identification and maintenance of abandoned African American cemeteries.”

The bills, if passed, would also create a dedicated Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Florida Department of State, and an African American Advisories Commission.

“Floridians can be assured that this is a priority of the state now, and it will continue to be in the future, as more cemeteries are unearthed,” Driskell said.

The congresswoman also said HB 1215 encourages research on abandoned cemeteries, and would provide funding opportunities to public universities for that research to continue.

“We also made sure to target our younger generations by directing the Dept. of Education to create meaningful curriculum about historic cemeteries, to engage students,” Driskell said. “Because we know that while we cannot change the past, we can do our best in present times to remedy historical wrongs, and secure the respect and dignity that is owed to every Floridian, regardless of their race or ethnicity, regardless of what their neighborhood or socioeconomic status may have been, even to those who have passed on before us.”

Before the start of a question and answer session about the cemetery initiative and proposed legislation, Driskell directly praised the reporting of Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Bay Times for his work focused on Zion Cemetery. She called it a “sparking impetus” for the legislative effort in 2019.

Asked what the hardest sell was for getting the legislation passed this year, Driskell said the biggest challenge was resources.

“The legislature comes and the one thing we’re constitutionally obligated to do is to pass a budget. We know that the budget was strained during the heart of the COVID pandemic, although it seems of course we’re still in the heart of the pandemic with the omicron variant running rampant at this time, but we had a great deal of federal resources to shore up Florida’s budget, it’s going to be interesting to see what the budget looks like this cycle,” Driskell said. “But in the legislation we are calling for dedicated resources to create this division of historic cemeteries within the department of state. That comes with full-time employees, you know there are other financial aspects of this, asking for funding for research, etc. So, you know, that’s always the trickiest part.”

Still, Driskell said she was optimistic that the legislation would pass due to how they’ve been raising awareness among legislative colleagues and working on the legislation itself for three sessions.

Cruz said the bill they proposed last year, which was signed into law, was modified to remove most of the fiscal aspects in order to move forward.

“We’re not sure now, you know we don’t know what we don’t know, we haven’t identified all of the cemeteries, we don’t know what the condition of each cemetery is. We don’t know if a cemetery is underneath or a piece of a cemetery is underneath, you know, ‘Mrs. Smith’s home,’ and what do we do? Do we memorialize the site? You know, how do we protect all of those involved while honoring those that have been dishonored?” Cruz said.

Cruz said the legislation so far was “just scratching the surface,” and that the heavy lift of the legislation would be the fiscal portion.

“I think with the ability to add some staff here, some of our findings recommend that we add staff and an office, that will begin to identify some of that so we can more clearly define what we need and what we will need relative to the money from the state that will help us make this better,” Cruz said.

The task force identified specific, “critical” areas to focus on, according to Driskell.

They chose identification and protection, and pushed for the adoption of a statewide legislative policy to use reasonable, non-invasive searching of abandoned or forgotten, lost, or stolen cemeteries and burial sites. The new law, if passed, would amend Florida’s Statutes to create an office of Historic Cemeteries Program within the Division of Historical Resources.

Driskell said they were asking for the legislature to approve three full-time career service employees to staff the program, one of whom would focus on African American cemeteries. That said, the law isn’t focused solely on African American cemeteries.

The effort was kickstarted by more recent coverage, according to Driskell, but also builds off of older state initiatives, some going back almost 25 years.

“You know, our task force was focused on African American cemeteries, but we know from a prior task force that was established by the legislature back in 1998 that abandoned cemeteries can be a problem for communities writ large. And so we need this office but we definitely need to make sure that within that office there is someone that is dedicated to exploring these historical wrongs,” Driskell said. “This newly created office would serve as a nexus for recording and updating records of cemeteries established at least 50 years ago, within the Florida master file site, or master site file, and in conjunction with the Florida archeological network.”

What the law would do, if passed, is make sure there are records of each cemetery’s location, to make sure “folks are not building on top of them, and also so we can make sure we memorialize them sufficiently.”

“We also want to coordinate with the University of South Florida’s Black Cemetery Network for the inclusion of abandoned African American cemeteries within that network,” Driskell said. “We want to create an advisory commission on African American historic cemeteries, so that this work…will be able to continue, and that the state is receiving input from community leaders and stakeholders to make sure that they are moving in the right way.”

She said other key points were to identify maintenance of cemeteries, to make sure that if there is suspicion or credible evidence of a cemetery, on, adjacent, or underneath a private property, there is a legal framework to check in a non-invasive way for the property owners. Education and curriculum for history and social responsibility for understanding the history, as well as memorialization by the state with historical markers, are other priorities.

If credible evidence exists to prove a cemetery’s location, the state would be able to check the location for verification purposes. That said, the law does not include a provision to force a landowner to provide access to the locations. Driskell said the state is very focused on private property rights, but that there may be a legislative interest in providing a mechanism for verification and access to potential cemetery locations.

Regarding educational components, Cruz said that taking in issues concerning the debate over critical race theory, Black history would continue to be taught, but that she thinks of CRT as a college-level course, rather than a curriculum needed in K-12, with the state not currently permitting the subject to be taught, currently, at those grade levels.

Both Driskell and Cruz called CRT education, as it pertains to the historic cemeteries in Florida, a non-issue.

As far as the potential cost to taxpayers, Driskell said she wouldn’t ballpark a cost due to the way legislative negotiations proceed for fiscal needs, especially with the next legislative session approaching. Cruz offered a similar sentiment, regarding negotiation and budgeting with appropriations during the legislative process.