SOUTHWEST FLORIDA — Segregated even in death. That was the reality for black folks in Southwest Florida, for decades.
"If you died as a black person in this county you were buried in these two cemeteries," said Charles Barnes, the Chairman of the Board for the Lee County Black History Society.
The Woodlawn and Oakridge cemeteries in the Dunbar community are a clear example.
And while we know of these two locations, there's a good chance that there are others we don't know about.
"If you look at our history, locally, we know that there were black communities outside of Dunbar way in the 1800s. And so, family members probably created burial plots to bury their loved ones?" said Barnes.
But where exactly are those gravesites?
It's a question a new statewide group is hoping to answer.
The Abandoned Cemeteries Task Force, created through House Bill 37, will bring together state leaders, historic black churches, scientists, and others to find the more than 3,000 forgotten black cemeteries across our state.
The Director of Collier County Museums, Amanda Townsend, says it's work that is already being done, in a small way, in Collier county.
They're currently looking to expand the Naples Rosemary Cemetery, by adding on two privately-owned plots that lie on the outskirts of the property. One of them is believed to contain the unmarked graves of eight black residents.
"We're looking to see what the ongoing management costs would be to fence and maintain those areas," Townsend said, "Many a historian have tried to take up challenge in the last several decades to try and figure out who these people were."
And while they are inching closer to getting the property, cracking case on those identities isn't looking promising.
"We don't know who these folks were and we probably never will. But nonetheless, that doesn't make them any less significant," she said.
The law creating that statewide task force to do this work on a larger scale goes into effect on July 1 and the newly created group is set to have its first meeting on August 1.