TAMPA, Fla — The discovery of black burials underneath the Robles Park housing development in 2019, also known as the forgotten Zion Cemetery, has been the catalyst to change in the Florida state legislature.
“Floridians can be assured this is a priority of the state now, and will continue to be in the future as more cemeteries are unearthed,” said State Representative Fentrice Driskell, who represents District 63.
Thursday, Representative Driskell, and State Senator Janet Cruz filed two bills that, if passed, would make the final recommendations of the Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task force law.
Those recommendations include the creation of a new Historic Cemeteries Program within the division of Historical resources. The program would be staffed with three full-time employees focused on not only the protection of unrecorded, forgotten, lost, or stolen black cemeteries across the state but the identification of them too even on private property.
“In Florida we are very strong got property rights and we want to make sure we aren’t doing anything to weaken that, but at the same time we can acknowledge there may be a compelling public policy interest, or community interest in investigating whether there is a cemetery on a private property,” said Representative Driskell. “The key piece there is credible evidence. Whether that’s the state or a local authority.”
“This innovative program will serve as a central body of recording the abandoned cemeteries in the 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 the organizations that are reaching out and working on the abandoned cemeteries,” said Senator Cruz.
The program would also work on ways to properly memorialize the discovered cemeteries and bring the conversation into the classroom so young people can learn from the mistakes of the past.
“It’s about teaching the truths and some of the hard truths about our past, but hopefully in a way that brings the conversations into the present so our young people can lead us into a far brighter future than we have been able to do,” said Rep. Driskell.
She said the biggest challenge will be funding and would not speculate on the amount needed to fund the program but she says awareness has grown among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle…and believes that will help push some of these recommendations into law.