In a unanimous vote, the Florida Senate approved a bill Monday that would create a special 10-member task force charged with investigating unmarked African-American cemeteries across the state.
The bill, which must still pass the Florida state House, would also require lawmakers to draft a report with suggestions on how to memorialize the burial sites, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
“A good community does not run from its history,” Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) told the newspaper. “Our state shouldn’t run from its history, either.”
The state launched a similar task force on abandoned and neglected cemeteries back in 1998, according to WUSF News.
Under the new measure, $50,000 would be allocated for a memorial at Zion Cemetery, which is believed to be Tampa’s first all-Black graveyard. The site was paved over for public housing apartments decades ago, and it was all but forgotten until recently. Another $50,000 would also be set aside for a public memorial at the King High School campus, also in Tampa, where the mid-20 century Ridgewood Cemetery once stood.
Evidence of the graveyards was found just last year, and archaeologists stumbled upon yet another “lost” Black burial site in early March, marking the third such discovery in the Tampa Bay area since August 2019.
Officials said the possible graves, located under a Pinellas County School District parking lot, are just 2.45 to 5.62 feet below the surface. And there could be more nearby, according to a report by Cardno, the firm hired by the school board to conduct the search.
With Senate Bill 220, lawmakers hope to uncover more of these forgotten gravesites so they’re forgotten no more.
“It’s my hope that for Floridians who [were] not provided dignity respect and equal protection in their life nor in their death will be honored and memorialized appropriately as we seek to fully understand this tragic piece of Florida’s history,” said Cruz, who’s sponsoring the bill.
The measure would further require the Florida Department of State to work with Florida A&M University and the University of South Florida to identify possible descendants of those buried at the sites.
A list of contacts for next of kin is due by Jan. 1, 2021, the Tampa Bay Times reports.