African Slaves Found Peace in Key West

A small, unique piece of American history lies beneath a narrow strip of sandy beach not far from this island's hotels and nightlife.

It's the known resting place of nine Africans, and 286 others are believed to be entombed along Higgs Beach on Key West's shore.

The dead were casualties of a trans-Atlantic trip aboard three American-owned slave ships intercepted by the U.S. Navy in 1860. The vessels were heading to Cuba to sell their 1,432 passengers into labor.

Rescued from slavery, the Africans spent three months in Key West, being cared for by local doctors with supplies purchased by the U.S. marshal and donated by an accepting citizenry. About 1,100 survived, and were eventually sent back to Africa in a dangerous voyage.

"They were brought here for refuge and became part of our community," said Norma Jean Sawyer, director of Key West's African-Bahamian Museum. "In Key West, they found some peace."

A Slave Shipwreck

The cemetery is just one attraction for tourists who find themselves in Key West during February, which is black history month. There's also a permanent exhibit focusing on the Henrietta Marie shipwreck on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, in Mallory Square just steps from famous Duval Street.

Excavated largely by the society, the Henrietta Marie, which sank near Key West in 1701 after delivering slaves to Jamaica, is one of only a handful of slave shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere ever identified by name.

The slave trade had been declared illegal in the United States by the mid-19th century. But it still continued to places such as Cuba and Brazil, financed illegally by American profiteers. Slave traders were considered pirates and faced penalties of death if caught.

President Buchanan in 1859 ordered a blockade of Cuba with Navy steamers to intercept any American-owned slave ships.

In the spring of 1860, sailors boarded the Wildfire, the William and the Bogota, finding the Africans living in deplorable conditions. They were destined to be sold as slaves in Cuba for as much as $1,200 each, said archaeologist Corey Malcom of the Mel Fisher museum.

A Gracious Welcome

The Navy brought the Africans to the nearest U.S. port, Key West. The remote mariner town had only 3,000 residents and its main industry was salvaging, also known as wrecking.

"These surprise guests were welcomed graciously," Malcom said.

Soldiers, carpenters and others quickly built a barracks and a hospital on a three-acre compound on what is the United States' southernmost point. The Africans, many of whom were ill after enduring the six-week voyage from their homes near present day Benin and the Congo, were confined to the compound.

They remained in Key West for three months, with U.S. Marshal Fernando Moreno spending his own money to build the barracks and provide the Africans with food, clothes and medicine.

Townspeople "cleaned out their closets" and wagon drivers, carpenters and other workers were hired to help, Malcom said. But despite their efforts, 295 of the Africans died.

Moreno paid the $1,617 for the burial of 294 Africans. One other was buried before Moreno took custody of the Africans.

Moreno spent thousands of dollars in the three months, but although he petitioned the government for repayment until his death, he was never reimbursed.

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