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As Hillsborough County explores forgotten cemeteries, a national archive tracks lost Black graves

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Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Dr. Antoinette Jackson, a USF professor and anthropologist, presents at the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center on Feb. 20, 2022 about lost Black cemeteries and the work being done to track and recover them.

While one University of South Florida anthropologist continues her work further exploring more than 40 unmarked cemeteries and burial grounds in Hillsborough County, another is focusing on lost Black cemeteries.

Forgotten cemeteries are an issue nationally and here in the greater Tampa Bay region. A disproportionate number of them held Black graves.

Last week, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to further explore — with ground-penetrating radar and other technologies — three possible forgotten burial grounds in the county.

The approval came after a presentation by Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthologist. Her team has been investigating the sites for two years and has found 45 unmarked cemeteries and burial grounds in Hillsborough County — two of them on county-owned property.

"I believe then, as I do now, that we have a moral obligation to see if any of these sites exist on lands we manage, and we owe that to the families and the community as a matter of human decency,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan.

The commissioners expect a final report by the end of the year.

Antoinette Jackson2_DM_022022.jpg
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
USF Anthropologist Antoniette Jackson is the founder of the Black Cemetery Network, which tracks neglected, lost, and built-over Black cemeteries.

Meanwhile, The Black Cemetery Network, started a year ago by another USF anthropologist, Antoinette Jackson, is tracking Black cemeteries that have been neglected, partially relocated, found beneath developed property, or lost entirely.

On Sunday, Jackson talked about the archive — and research on several specific lost cemeteries — with group of artists, activists and community members at the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center.

"It's painstaking work. But we are building records about some of these sites that have been erased over time. And so it takes one cemetery, one community, one on one, “Jackson said.

As of Sunday, the site lists 12 cemeteries in Florida and 41 nationally. It lists founding information, relevant history, maps, and links to news articles.

She hopes people will “understand the magnitude of this and then maybe put some teeth into what happens if you build a wall or ignore a historically African American cemetery."

Her presentation follows proposed federal and state legislation that aims to also track and preserve Black cemeteries.

House Bill 1215 and Senate Bill 1588 in Florida would create a Historic Cemeteries Program, and a commission to oversee it.

The museum presentation also featured spoken word poetry by three different writers through a group called The Battleground, which seeks to empower youth through poetry, rap and martial arts.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
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