Gov. DeSantis signs measure preserving abandoned African American cemeteries

Abandoned and threatened African American cemeteries are getting the protection of new state personnel dedicated to salvaging them from obscurity, according to a new law that Gov. Ron DeSantis has now signed.

The legislation (HB 49) is the result of a 2021 task force study that recommended the creating the Historic Cemeteries Program Advisory Council within the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources.

House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell and Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell Jr. carried the measure forward.

The legislation calls for an appropriation of $1 million in nonrecurring funds and another $242,000 to pay for staffing the program with three full-time employees charged with carrying out several duties, including researching and identifying abandoned cemeteries, organizing a master list of cemeteries established at least 50 years ago and getting markers to indicate a place of eternal rest.

The measure also calls for a school curriculum so children will learn about these cemeteries.

The law expressly mentions cemeteries that are more than 50 years old. That goes back to the time when Jim Crow laws kept races separate, even in death. As a result, many of these Black cemeteries were on private property that changed hands without proper consideration that many people had been laid to rest there.

The problem came into focus when the Tampa Bay Times found in 2019 that the Tampa Housing Authority was built on top of Zion Cemetery, where nearly 400 people were buried.

Roberto Fernández III, an adjunct history professor at Florida International University, said he’s particularly excited about the way school curriculum will be involved as a result of the new law.

“These are historic sites and, to an extent, they do speak for themselves,” said Fernández, who specializes in studies of the African diaspora. “It’s an opportunity to have those difficult, but important conversations.”

Local history less than 100 years old tends to slide by today’s students, he says.

“The way history has been taught, we’re very national in view,” he said. “For Florida students, they forget that Florida was once part of the South and schools were segregated up until the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.”

On its way to becoming law, stories of forgotten cemeteries came from both sides of the aisle.

Republican Rep. Taylor Yarkosky of Montverde called it a humanitarian issue, not a partisan one, as he recounted how the Oak Tree Union Colored Cemetery of Taylorsville was discovered and is currently being restored in what is now Groveland.

“We’re excited about being able to bring some honor and dignity back to these folks who have been desecrated,” he said.

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