TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A newly formed state panel devoted to identifying what historians believe could be as many as 3,000 long-forgotten Black cemeteries in Florida, began its work Tuesday.

Members said they were bracing for the potential of a multi-year endeavor fraught with technological and legal hurdles.

What You Need To Know

  • The Task Force on Abandoned African Cemeteries started its work Tuesday

  •  The group is tasked with finding Florida's forgotten Black cemeteries

  • Experts believe there could be as many as 3,000 abandoned Black cemeteries in the state

Meeting at Tallahassee's Mission San Luis conference venue, the Task Force on Abandoned African Cemeteries devoted its inaugural session to determining how to handle what will invariably be some unprecedented challenges.

Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa), a sponsor of the legislation that created the task force, predicted that the discovery cemeteries that now lie beneath housing and commercial developments will lead to complicated land rights issues.

"We know we have this cemetery here of lost souls, but this cemetery is underneath Mrs. Jones' home that she's paid for for 40 years," Cruz said, citing a hypothetical situation. "It's the only thing that she owns. What do we do to protect everyone? How do we honor the dead and make sure that we're protecting folks? And these issues are multiplicative."

Many of the Black cemeteries were established after Reconstruction, when Jim Crow-era segregation laws governed where African-Americans could be buried.

Some sites were mishandled and ultimately consumed by urbanization. The recent discovery of the Zion Cemetery in Tampa is a prominent example, where ground-penetrating radar identified what are believed to be graves lying beneath a housing complex built in the 1950s.

The task force is only the latest iteration of a state effort to uncover the cemeteries. A task force was established in the 1990s to find the sites and possibly identify remains, only to fall short of its goal.

"I hope that this group demands some action and that we at least identify the lost cemeteries and attempt to memorialize those lost souls. It's never too late to right a wrong - that's what I've been saying all along," Cruz said.