African Slaves Found Peace in Key West

The surviving Africans were sent across the Atlantic to Liberia, a U.S.-sponsored West African colony for free slaves. Some died on the voyage, and most of the roughly 800 who did make it never returned to their homes.

Sawyer says the careful burials of the Africans is a pre-Civil War reminder of Key West's reputation of tolerance, a quality it is known for today for its acceptance of any person and lifestyle.

"The people here made sure they weren't just thrown in a hole," Sawyer said. "They were given some reverence as human beings."

The town's seafaring identity made it such an accepting place, though there was a minority who didn't like the presence of the Africans and was eager for them to leave, Malcom says.

"You would see that diversity and tolerance because there were always people coming in off ships from different places with different values and different cultures," he says.

Graves On Beach

But their tale of death and survival remained obscure until about four years ago, when Malcom helped discover the nine graves on Higgs Beach near a paved road and beach volleyball courts.

Inspired by an old map of the Higgs Beach area that showed the cemetery, he found documentation on the whole ordeal, from apothecary shopping lists, to inventories of plates and dishes, to a journal of the return trip to Africa.

Malcom then decided that the area in and around Higgs Beach should be investigated. He contacted Lawrence Conyers, a University of Denver archaeology professor, who came to Key West with ground-penetrating radar. They beamed radar waves into the ground for three days and found nine graves that resembled a series of 5- to 6-foot-long ovals, neatly lined up in rows of three only a couple of feet deep. Malcom believes most of the other graves were moved after a fort was built over the cemetery, and suspects there could be a massive pile of bones nearby.

The site of the nine shallow graves is marked off by a black steel fence, and plans are to build a more permanent barrier to protect them. Malcom is preparing to apply for a designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I expect at some point, whether it's us or someone else, someone will come across the other 280 people that were buried there," Malcom says.

Adegbolu Adefunmi, prince of the Yoruba African tribe in America, and Sawyer coordinated three days of burial and purification rituals for the cemetery last year.

While there are historic burial grounds for freed slaves, the cemetery joins one in New York as one of two in the country that houses people from Africa who were not sold as slaves, Adefunmi said.

"Unlike many Africans buried on [U.S.] soil, these people were shown respect with an ordered burial," Adefunmi said.

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