Antoinette Jackson and her team said The Black Cemetery Network has continued to grow since the website launched in June, with more and more lost cemeteries being reported across the country.
"People know of them, but the urgency I think became more prevalent once you could see the archeological record and see, yes, there are graves there," Jackson told Fox 13 News.
Many historical Black cemeteries now being discovered have been covered by buildings or parking lots.
“The state of Florida is taking a lead on this issue, and universities such as USF are really putting an emphasis on this type of work to ensure such cultural and historic places are not forgotten,” Jackson said.
According to USF, the national network includes a virtual archive and a map of historical Black cemetery sites, as well as a research portal and an advocacy hub. Jackson said there are likely tens of thousands of lost cemeteries across the nation that have been systemically covered up.
"This is a real systemic problem and it’s not isolated to one community, one state, one city, and dignity needs to be brought to this conversation," she said.
The network is also aiming to provide valuable information to educate the public and further research endeavors.
“These cemeteries contain stories about people, places and families that are often missing from the larger public narrative,” Jackson said. “The Black Cemetery Network will connect people and communities to these cemeteries and forgotten histories in order to create a living archive that facilitates research, advocacy and collaboration.”
The anthropologist and her team also encourage other researchers to identify lost burial sites and submit their findings to the network in order to be archived on the website.
“There are many individual projects and people who are already working as Black cemetery site advocates, and through the network they can help us visually represent the issue of Black cemetery erasure and show the scope of the problem in a national context,” said Kaleigh Hoyt, a USF anthropology doctoral student and creative director and research assistant for the Black Cemetery Network.
In addition, Jackson's group is interviewing people associated with historical Black cemeteries to record oral histories, examine historical archives and identify buried individuals. Part of their research is focused on Zion Cemetery, one of the first Black cemeteries in Tampa Bay, Florida. The team plans to produce the first digital story map on the local cemeteries, combining oral histories, photographs, videos and archival information.
“With this network, we hope to show strength in numbers by taking advantage of the expertise already working on uncovering historical Black cemeteries locally and elevate that work nationally, while having others contribute to it so their projects are visible,” Jackson said.
According to ABC Action News, Florida approved legislation in June to create a task force on studying and memorializing abandoned Black cemeteries.
“We find our chance as a state to work together to think through the best ways to honor those who were lost, but who should never ever be forgotten,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell told the news station.
Officials in Florida said more than 3,000 previously unidentified Black cemeteries have been found in the state. They hope that the task force will continue to build on the progress.
“This is not a celebration for the city of Tampa nor the NAACP Hillsborough County branch,” said Yvette Lewis, President of the Hillsborough NAACP. “We have many more forgotten and stolen African American cemetery stories to uncover and tell the story.”