Groveland sets example as lawmakers near vote on office to aid abandoned Black cemeteries
A bill nearing passage in the Florida House would create the Historic Cemeteries Program, with the tools, expertise and funding to help restore abandoned African American cemeteries.
Meanwhile in Groveland, the fire chief is spearheading an effort to realize that vision at the local level.
The Abandoned and Historic Cemeteries bill -- House Bill 49 -- by Democrat Fentrice Driskell of Tampa has sailed through its committees with bipartisan support. It awaits a final vote on the House floor.
Driskell says it will benefit all communities and will enact the recommendations of a statewide task force on historic African American cemeteries.
"It took two years to get the task force," she said during a recent hearing. "It's getting two years to get the recommendations enacted. But finally the state will establish an office of historic cemeteries."
The city of Groveland is charging ahead with its own efforts -- bolstered by state funds -- to restore its long-abandoned Black cemetery.
The Old Groveland Cemetery
Last week, Fire Chief Kevin Carroll was standing with 77-year-old Groveland native Sam Griffin on a sandy acre-and-a-quarter dotted with palm trees and a few gravestones at the edge of town.
It was a jungle a year ago with trees every few feet and vines everywhere. There were two huge invasive earpod trees. One of them had swallowed up the grave of a World War I veteran.
Griffin said that clearing the Old Groveland Cemetery -- known officially as the Oak Tree Union Colored Cemetery of Taylorville -- took 37 truckloads.
"Axes, shovels, hoes, chainsaws, weedkiller," Griffin said. "Whatever we had to do that's what we did. We dug up stumps, we were digging up with old-fashioned grubbing hoes. They laughed at me because I still had some of these old relics. But they worked."
Griffin’s uncle and namesake -- World War I veteran Samuel Griffin -- was buried here in 1935.
Griffin said he’s volunteered many back-breaking hours and made a lot of friends in the process. For him, it’s about recognizing and respecting their lives even in death.
"I just wanted to try to do everything I could to let people know that, hey, they were human at one time, too," he said.
Chief Carroll said the volunteers and business people working to restore the old cemetery check their skin color and politics at the door.
"You're here for one reason and one reason only, and that is to bring respect, dignity and honor to, not only to these civilians that are buried here, but these World War I veterans who are buried here, who all deserve better than what happened here," Carroll said.
The cemetery was founded between 1895 and 1900. It was abandoned for 70 years, and many headstones were stolen or desecrated.
Carroll said 18 gravestones remain. Some bear the names of veterans and members of fraternal organizations -- the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knight of Pythias and the Heroines of Jericho.
Ground-penetrating radar found 229 additional graves, Carroll said. "Then you have to add anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more for small children and people who may not have been buried in caskets. So there could be as many as 275 here."
Carroll says researchers found names, too, on more than 200 death certificates that reference the cemetery, the only burial site available for Black people in the Groveland area during those segregated times.
Groveland is working with a nearly $500,000 state grant to restore it. Pillars and a wall are going up. There’ll be markers for all the graves, an educational kiosk, a children's corner, a winding path, and a veterans corner, too.
"When we rededicate this cemetery, these military veterans here will get the send-off they never got back in the day," Carroll added.
'Showcase' for Florida history
University of South Florida anthropology professor Antoinette Jackson founded The Black Cemetery Network, which tells the unique story of this historic graveyard, 19 others in Florida and many more around the U.S.
The total number in Florida is unclear, but Jackson said those listed are but a small fraction.
She said these neglected Black cemeteries exist as they do because people of African descent were denied the full rights of citizenship through most of American history.
"As farther back you go in history and not too far back, really, you start to uncover the fact that these differences did live in the landscape," Jackson said. "They lived in community. They still exist. And these cemeteries showcase that."
And that, she said, is why they are so important for Black history and for the history of Florida.