- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. — A small, unique piece of American history lies beneath a narrow strip of sandy beach not far from this island’s hotels and night life.

It’s the known resting place of nine Africans, and 286 other refugees 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 eventually were sent back to Africa in a dangerous voyage.

“They were brought here for refuge and became part of our community,” says Norma Jean Sawyer, director of Key West’s Lofton B. Sands African-Bahamian Museum and Resource Center. “In Key West, they found some peace.”

The cemetery is just one attraction for tourists who find themselves in Key West during February, which is Black History Month. Another is a permanent exhibit focusing on the Henrietta Marie shipwreck, on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and 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 just a handful of slave shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere ever identified by name.

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

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

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

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

“These surprise guests were welcomed graciously,” Mr. Malcom says.

Soldiers, carpenters and others quickly built a barracks and a hospital on a 3-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 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, Mr. Malcom says. Despite the 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 freed slaves. Some died on the voyage, and most of the 800 or so who made it never returned to their homes.

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

“The people here made sure [the Africans] weren’t just thrown in a hole,” Miss Sawyer says. “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, Mr. 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.

The Africans’ tale of death and survival remained obscure until about four years ago, when Mr. 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 as well as a journal of the return trip to Africa.

Mr. 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 just a couple of feet deep. Mr. Malcom believes most of the other graves were moved after a fort was built over the cemetery, and he 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 call for building a more permanent barrier to protect them. Mr. Malcom is preparing to apply for 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,” Mr. Malcom says.

Adegbolu Adefunmi, prince of the West African Yoruba tribe in America, and Miss 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, Mr. Adefunmi says.

“Unlike many Africans buried on [U.S.] soil, these people were shown respect with an ordered burial,” he says.

• • •

The site of the Africans’ graves is 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 and Museum, 200 Greene St., Key West (phone 305/294-2633 or visit www.melfisher.org), is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $8.50 for students, $5 for children. Attractions include a permanent exhibit about the slave ship Henrietta Marie. Read the story of the Henrietta Marie at www.historicalmuseum.org/exhibits/hm/henmarie.htm.

Lofton B. Sands African-Bahamian Museum & Resource Center, 324 Truman Ave., Key West (phone 305/295-7337 or visit www.bcclt.org/museum.htm), is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and on weekends by appointment. Suggested donation: $5 per adult.

Key West observes black history month 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 eco-tourism, fishing, historic sites, sunsets and Ernest Hemingway’s house. For help with lodging or other information, contact www.fla-keys.com or 800/352-5397.

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