About two dozen people braved summer rains to take part in the second annual Key West Observance of the international Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition held at the African Cemetery on Higgs Beach Aug. 22.
With the call of the drum, sacred rituals and prayer, poetry and community dialogue with several speakers, including artists involved in designing the memorial monument at the site, the group paid tribute to the Ancestors who died at sea during captivity.
The event, held beneath a tent, brought together local residents and visitors from Miami, Orlando and Britain.
The observance was part of a global event established in 1998 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a complement to UNESCO’s International Slave Route Project.
The local event this year was made much more significant as it marked the cemetery’s 150th anniversary. It followed a moving Commemoration and Reconciliation Ceremony at the site conducted by the visiting King of the La Traditional Area of Ghana, West Africa, on March 29.
The cemetery’s history dates back to 1860, when 295 Africans, mostly young people, were buried at the site which is now adjacent to the historic West Martello Tower brick fortress on Atlantic Boulevard.
The Africans were among a 1,432 people rescued by the U.S. Navy from three American-owned slave ships bound for Cuba and brought to Key West. They were welcomed and supported by the community with food, clothing, and housing during their collective 81 days in detention but the 295 could not recover from the illnesses and filthy conditions they had endured in the forced ocean crossing. The survivors left to begin new lives of freedom in Liberia.
The presence of the Africans at Key West garnered national attention and provided evidence needed for Congressional legislation as the nation drew closer to Civil War. While Florida joined the Confederacy, Key West remained under Union control throughout the war.
The cemetery where the Africans were buried was disturbed by the construction of the West Martello Tower by the Union to enforce a naval blockade. The bodies were unearthed from their neat rows and dumped into an unmarked mass grave.
Also disturbing the graves were two other construction projects, in 1903 and 1941.
So far, only 15 of the original graves have been located intact by a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area of Higgs Beach to the east of the fort. The monument, consisting of an artistically decorated rectangular slab fenced on three sides, appears to float above the original burial sites as it rests on reinforced beams.
A recently installed symbolically designed fence is surmounted by 295 solid metal pyramids, one for each of the Africans originally buried in the cemetery and an additional two in memory of two others who drowned.
The fence completes the first phase of the monument’s construction and design, which is scheduled for expansion and additional features, including a shrine, an obelisk/sundial feature and surrounding landscaping and artwork.
The cemetery’s disturbed history means further GPR surveying is scheduled to seek out other graves, which, if found, will impact redevelopment plans for the Higgs Beach area.
The project is intended to represent a resolve to bring honor, peace and dignity in remembrance of the Africans who died in conditions of injustice, as well as saluting Africans who died in the Middle Passage, as the Atlantic crossing was known.
The unique history of the area makes the Key West African Cemetery one of the most important locations to be identified in the UNESCO International Slave Route Project. The initiative seeks to locate and conserve all evidence, traces and memories of the slave trade in all the countries that were touched by it so that the story will never be lost or forgotten by future generations.
As to the Africans who survived and sought liberty in Liberia in Africa, 823 lived through the experience.
This year’s Key West observance was co-sponsored by the Florida Black Historical Research Project, based in Palm Beach County, and the Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Slave Ship Project, based in Miami.