Black History Month 2013 BLACK AMERICA: Looking back; Forging ahead
KEY WEST – They are from an area of Ghana known as the Kingdom of La. More than 100 Africans, stolen from their homeland and put on slave ships bound for Cuban sugar plantations in 1860, now lay buried beneath the sand and earth on the south shore of Key West.
They died here after succumbing to dysentery and other diseases wrought by the harsh, inhumane conditions they endured during their forced voyage across the Atlantic.
Nearly 153 years later, the Ghanaians lay in graves under a Key West city park across from Higgs Beach. The graves extend from the beach, run northward beneath a road and a dog park where pet owners walk their animals. The park and road were built years before anyone realized the men, women, and children were buried there.
Today, a large monument on Higgs Beach marks their resting place. It’s called the Key West African Cemetery Memorial.
Corey Malcom, director of archeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society in Key West, which oversees the graves and the memorial site, said a city plan to redevelop the area and dog park will ensure the preservation of the graves and their contents.
“The graves come first,” Malcom said. “These people suffered enough; we need to celebrate them, remember them as they were. When the park is redone in the next few years, it will be a dedicated green space that will include the existing African Cemetery memorial.”
There will be no digging up of graves or other disturbance to the site, Malcom said. Atlantic Avenue, which runs parallel to the beach, will be moved further inland to bypass the gravesite. The dog park will be moved to another location on the island. “There is plenty of room elsewhere on the island for a dog park,” he said.
Malcom and other archeologists used ground penetrating radar (GPR) in 2002 to search for what was designated as an “African cemetery” on a newly discovered 1861 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map. The map indicated that at least nine bodies had been buried near a small, federal fort next to Higgs Beach.
According to a Mel Fisher Museum account of the GPR survey, “2 to 3 feet below the surface were a series of 5- to- 6-foot long oval holes exactly where the African Cemetery was located in 1861. Nine of these are very clear, and another six are there, but not as well defined. These features are closely spaced, and form three rows.”
Malcom, other archeologists and local government officials moved quickly to consecrate the site as an official historical grave site deserving protection and permanence.
“The memorial covers 15 graves,” Malcom said. “Though Key West was not a slave-trading port, our position puts us square in the path of the transAtlantic slave trade. The transAtlantic slave trade was made illegal in 1808, so American warships positioned themselves around Cuba to intercept slave ships.”
In May 1860, a Key West warship captured the William, Wildfire, and other illegal slave ships off Cuba and rescued the men, women, and children who in the nude during the lengthy voyage had been exposed to the Atlantic Ocean’s frigid wet weather. Drawings of the ships of the time show the proud but confused people crammed into filthy holds without blankets or beds.
Once they were aboard the American ships, crew members fed and cared for them as best they could as they were transported to the safety of Key West. Local carpenters built barracks to house them.
According to the Mel Fisher organization, “The 3,000 citizens of the island … came together and built housing, donated clothing, and provided food and medical attention for (the Africans) during their stay.
Nevertheless, within weeks some 295 died from their ordeal. Congress helped fund the relocation of hundreds of survivors to Liberia in West Africa. Some remained in Key West and restarted their lives here.
The Key West African Cemetery will hold two events in March that will commemorate them all.
At 5 p.m. on March 9 the community will hold an acknowledgment ceremony to describe what happened to the people buried there and its effects on the history of Key West.
On March 25 the cemetery memorial will mark the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a United Nations program.