Florida lawmakers OK funding to commemorate black cemeteries

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Memorials would be erected at two nearly forgotten Tampa cemeteries where hundreds of African Americans are buried, under a plan approved Wednesday by the Florida Senate amid outrage over years of indifference that permitted development on top of the burial sites.

By unanimous voice vote, the Senate set aside $100,000 in its budget proposal to erect memorials at Zion and Ridgewood cemeteries, both in Tampa. The proposal still needs House approval.

Last summer, the Tampa Bay Times launched an investigation that unearthed evidence of a large cemetery beneath a public housing project. Prompted by the paper’s reporting, archaeologists have since confirmed that nearly 800 people were buried at Zion between 1901 and 1929. It was the first African American cemetery recognized by the city of Tampa.

Months later, ground-penetrating radar revealed another cemetery containing at least 145 graves, but possibly as many as 268, on the grounds of King High, a public school in Tampa.

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Scores of black cemeteries across the Southeast, including Florida, are at risk of being forever lost because they are now unmarked. A move is underway nationally to rediscover these lost cemeteries to protect them from developers and to honor their role in American history. Many small cemeteries contain the remains of enslaved people.

“These memorials will provide a solemn reminder at both of these sites, a reminder of sad realities of Florida’s history. But also memorials at these sites will allow our communities to heal,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa area Democrat.

Some Florida lawmakers want to establish a statewide task force to help identify and memorialize these lost cemeteries. But it remains unclear if that broader effort will gain traction.

Just a mile from the state Capitol, federal archaeologists recently confirmed the existence of at least 40 graves near the 7th fairway of the Capital City Country Club. The land surrounding the Capitol used to be home to scores of cotton plantations — each likely having its own burial site for the slaves who once worked the land against their will.

“This is really an emotional issue,” said the state Senate’s Democratic leader, Audrey Gibson, who, like Rouson, is black.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican, called the effort a “noble” one. “We wouldn’t be here,” he said, “but for those who came before us and endured what they endured in their time for us to have the great state that we have today.”

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