Among modern Key West’s greatest characteristics is its inclusiveness. During the Civil War, Key West remained in the United States despite Florida having joined the secession, and African Americans on the island lived as free men long before it became the law of the land.
In 1860, off the coast of Key West, where the U.S. Navy intercepted three ships holding 1,432 African men, women, and children bound for Cuba. So, the American ships, which were engaged in the illegal transatlantic slave trade, were forced to relinquish their human cargo.
These rescuees were brought to Key West as freed Africans, where they were provided with food and clothing, while housing and a hospital were built to provide them with medical care and shelter. Traumatized, depleted and seriously ill due to appallingly unsanitary and inhumane conditions aboard the slave ships, 294 Africans perished within three months of rescue, they were interred that summer, and then forgotten.
A history note: in 1860, owning slaves was not illegal but transporting slaves was outlawed in 1820. That is why the kidnapped Africans who were rescued were able to remain freemen.
Two years later, during construction of the West Martello Tower fort, soldiers encountered some human remains, which were relocated 12 meters down the beach, and then forgotten. Again. And construction continued.
However complications as warfare and the resulting lack of funds prevented the fort’s completion, even though it was still utilized during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and both World Wars.
In 1947, the ruined fort was considered a discordant note in landscape and slated for demolition, but valiant efforts by Florida Representant John Allen yielded a collaboration between the county and the Key West Garden Club, which maintains it to this day.
The graves, comprising the only known cemetery of African refugees lay forgotten until 2002, when were discovered using ground-penetrating radar.
These discoveries of a singular nature caused the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, since June 26, 2012, as a place of “unique archaeological significance.”
Pedestals bearing plaques and adorned with Adrinkas symbolizing slavery were placed, and tribal leaders consecrated the site, while an African temple and obelisk are to be built within the next few years.
Today the main visitors to the fort are birds and lizards scampering through lush foliage and tropical flowers, under vine-wrapped arbors and drapes of figs, while a walk outside the iron fence enclosing the fort leads directly to the beach cemetery.
The plaque at the grave site reads:
“Near this site lie the remains of 294 African men, women and children who died in Key West in 1860. In the summer of that year the U.S. Navy rescued 1,432 Africans from three American-owned ships engaged in the illegal slave trade. Ships bound for Cuba were intercepted by the U.S. Navy, who brought the freed Africans to Key West where they were provided with clothing, shelter and medical treatment. They had spent weeks in unsanitary and inhumane conditions aboard the slave ships. The U.S. steamships Mohawk, Wyandott and Crusader rescued these individuals from the Wildfire, where 507 were rescued; the William, where 513 were rescued; and the Bogota, where 417 survived. In all, 294 Africans succumbed at Key West to various diseases caused by conditions of their confinement. They were buried in unmarked graves on the present day Higgs Beach where West Martello Tower now stands. By August, more than 1,000 survivors left for Liberia, West Africa, a country founded for former American slaves, where the U.S. government supported them for a time. Hundreds died on the ships before reaching Liberia. Thus, the survivors were returned to their native land, Africa, but not to their original homes on that continent.”
Images from web.