Bill aims to protect Florida’s Black cemeteries

The Old City Cemetery was established in 1829, making it the oldest public cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida. It was acquired by the City of Tallahassee in 1840 and because it was the only public burial site at the time, slaves, farmers, political figures, veterans and yellow fever victims could all be found buried here. Photo courtesy

Florida lawmakers are considering legislation — House Bill 37 and companion Senate Bill 222 — that will create a task force on identifying abandoned African-American cemeteries. The bill would require administrative support and members of the task force will file and commemorate these cemeteries.

Cheyenne Cannon is married with children and also enjoys the outdoors. However, as a teenager, she lost a friend and now avoids visiting cemeteries because of it. 

Burial grounds can be abandoned for a number of different reasons. African-American cemeteries often did not maintain paperwork or files to track the lineage of their occupants. According to the bill’s text, this was contrary to predominantly white cemeteries due to slavery, segregation and the discrimination of Black people. 

The Department of State will be required to contract Florida A&M University and the University of South Florida to properly identify and locate the eligible next of kin. 

Karen Hoffman lives near a cemetery in Tallahassee and says she has no fear of them to stay away at all. She usually changes her parents’ flowers and cleans the headstone about once a month or just walks her dogs there.

“Some people are visiting their loved ones and others are just walking dogs too,” Hoffman said. “Sometimes no one is there and it’s very peaceful. I love walking around looking at different headstones and the messages on them. There is one section that’s only for children which is very sad.”

A few days a week she sees the city there repairing the surrounding roads, landscaping the grass, etc.

The task force will direct the Division of Historical Resources of the department to confirm that certain cemeteries are included in the Florida Master Site File as well as requiring the division to also seek to include historical markers at specific abandoned cemeteries.

Renay Cummings says she visits every few months with either her friends or sometimes alone. There are two cemeteries that she visits.

“We are fifth and sixth generation people from this area who have family burial plots. Our roots run deep. We make sure the graves are clean and have flowers too. We make a point of remembering and honoring,” Cummings said. 

SB 222 is co-sponsored by Sen. Janet Cruz and Sen. Linda Stewart, both Democrats. HB 37 is up for its second reading in the coming days.