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.

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.

If You Go…

SITE OF THE AFRICAN GRAVES: Between West Martello Tower and White Street Pier on the south side of Atlantic Boulevard. Across the boulevard from the cemetery, a plaque installed by the state of Florida tells the refugees' story. MEL FISHER MARITIME HERITAGE SOCIETY & MUSEUM: 200 Greene St., Key West. Phone (305) 294-2633 or visiti Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission $10 adults, $8.50 students, $5 children. Attractions include permanent exhibit about the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship. Read the story of the Henrietta Marie at LOFTON B. SANDS AFRICAN BAHAMIAN MUSEUM & RESOURCE CENTER: 324 Truman Ave., Key West. Phone (305) 295-7337 or visit Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; weekends by appointment. Suggested donation: $5 per adult. The museum is sponsoring the screening of an African film on Feb. 13 and a "Heritage Fashion Show and Dance" featuring African and Caribbean clothing on Feb. 27; both events at Key West's Veterans of Foreign Wars center. KEY WEST: Black history month will be observed at local churches with various events including a Unity Day program and a celebration of ancient African and contemporary black history. Other local attractions include ecotourism, fishing, historic sites, sunsets and Ernest Hemingway's house. For help with lodging or other information, contact or (800) 352-5397.