The United Nations established the day to call attention to its UNESCO Slave Route Project, launched in 1994 in Benin, West Africa, as a global call to all nations that were touched by the slave trade, to conserve all artifacts, memories and knowledge of this tragic part of world history for future generations.
The U.N. chose the date, officially Aug. 23, to commemorate the beginning of the Haitian Revolution on that date in 1791 which marked the most successful uprising against slavery, and to emphasize the fact that Africans themselves were the real founders and leaders of the abolition movement.
The theme is woven into the history of Key West, a city located geographically closest to the predominant routes of the trade in human beings.
One major symbol of that connection is the cemetery itself, where 295 Africans, mostly young people, were buried in 1860, They were among 1,432 who were rescued by the U.S. Navy from three captured American slave ships bound for Cuba.
The Monroe County Black Heritage Preservation Foundation, of which Norma Jean Sawyer is program manager organizes the remembrance and other events related to the cemetery.
Special guests at the ceremony included King Adejuyibe Adefunmi II of the Oyotunji Yoruba Village in South Carolina, widely regarded as the only authentic traditional African village in the United States.
Adefunmi brought greetings to the gathering and he and Key West historian and cultivator Jeff Stotts planted a symbolic Unity Tree. Miamians attending the ceremony included historian and preservationist Enid C. Pinkney, artist and activist Altine, videographer Bedilia Campbell, and Chief Nathaniel Styles.
The Oyotunji Yoruba Drummers were joined by Broward-based R&B Music Hall of Famer Ric Powell, who is a former president of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), and storyteller and musician Madafo Wilson, who also poured the ceremonial libation.
A highlight of the program was a traditional fire dance performed by Prince Emmanuel of Nigeria.
The ceremony ended with tributes to local community leaders for their efforts to preserve history and the singing of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro National Anthem.
The remembrance is becoming part of Key West’s emergence as an epicenter of interest in the slave trade. The island city is near the site of the wreck of the English slave ship Henrietta Marie in 1700 that has yielded a nationwide traveling exhibition.
The city also figured in the drama of the wreck of the Spanish slave ship Guerrero off Key Largo in 1827, as some of the survivors were taken there.
Key West is also the site where members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers placed an underwater monument.
But the cemetery stands out as the most significant symbol, a monument to the rescued Africans who died and were buried there during a 12-week detention while waiting to be repatriated to Africa.
The Africans benefited from the generosity of the Key West community, then numbering about 3,000, who helped provide them with food, blankets and clothing.
Aug. 23 is one of three International Days related to slavery. The others are March 25, for the Remembrance of the Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Dec. 2, for the Abolition of Slavery, which persists in various forms around the world.
Those observances take on added significance this year, which the U.N. General Assembly has designated the International Year for People of African Descent, to encourage programs and permanent changes that will correct centuries of discrimination.
The Monroe County Black Heritage Preservation Foundation said it is planning further improvements to a memorial monument at the African Cemetery and for observing International Day on Dec. 2.
For more information, call the foundation at 305-304-6765.