TAMPA, Fla. — State and local leaders are highlighting the continued progress on the issue of abandoned Black cemeteries in Florida. With legislation signed into law this month, it’ll create a task force on studying and memorializing abandoned black cemeteries and burial grounds.
For Corey Givens Jr., family is not forgotten, but some final resting places are yet to be found. He and his family believe his great-great-grandfather and great-great-aunt are buried at the lost Oaklawn Cemetery in St. Pete.
“You feel helpless as if there’s not much you can do other than continue to beat the drum and sound the alarm and hope that eventually someone will listen,” said Givens Jr.
Givens Jr. said he does commend the Florida Legislature and Governor for taking the right steps to try to right a wrong, with newly-signed legislation to help find and memorialize abandoned and forgotten black cemeteries.
He says he hopes it’ll be more action than just talk.
“I think about my great-great-grandfather, who came here a former slave," said Givens Jr. "He helped lay the railroad. He helped pave the streets. He contributed so much to what we have today, and we wouldn’t have anything had it not been for them, black or white.”
One of the first forgotten African American burial sites to be uncovered was the Zion Cemetery underneath the Robles Park housing development in Tampa.
“We find our chance as a state to work together to think through the best ways to honor those who were lost, but who should never ever be forgotten,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell.
On Thursday at Robles Park Tampa Housing Authority complex, the site of the recently discovered Zion Cemetery, state and city leaders highlighted the legislation, which creates a statewide task force.
After the discovery of Zion in June 2019, Senator Janet Cruz and Representative Driskell filed legislation to address the issue, noting many Black cemeteries have been paved over by apartments, roads, and schools, although the legislation did not pass until the 2021 session.
The Governor signed the legislation into law earlier this month, and it will take effect on July 1.
“Members of this task force will be charged with developing and recommending strategies that will preserve the history of these hallowed grounds and ensure dignity and respect to the deceased,” said Cruz.
The task force must hold its first meeting by August 1, 2021. They will also be required to submit a report by January 1, 2022, detailing their findings and recommendations to the Governor and state lawmakers. The task force will end in March 2022, per state statute.
Officials say the task force will build on the recent discovery of more than 3,000 previously unidentified Black cemeteries found across Florida, while also acknowledging there’s more work to be done.
“This is not a celebration for the city of Tampa nor the NAACP Hillsborough County branch,” said Yvette Lewis, President of the Hillsborough NAACP. “We have many more forgotten and stolen African American cemetery stories to uncover and tell the story.”
Antoinette Jackson, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, is trying to help tell those stories. She and her team just launched a website called The Black Cemetery Network, an initiative through USF, that includes a national map.
The network acts as a hub for locating, preserving and recording black cemetery sites, and Jackson says people are encouraged to participate in their effort.
“Histories of entire communities, entire cities are captured within these places, so it is important not only for people with descendants buried there, but for the entire communities, for the entire Tampa Bay area,” said Jackson. “This is history for all of us and knowledge we should all know.”
For the families, that history is always present, while they wait for action to bring respect and dignity to those who came before us.
“We need to make sure that we try to do everything in our power to honor their legacy, honor their memory, and make sure that this does not happen again,” said Givens Jr.