One of Key
West’s proudest and most significant historical developments will be
commemorated on Sunday, August 21, at 6:00 p.m., at the Key West African
Cemetery located at 1074-1094 Atlantic Blvd, Key West, FL 33040, near Higgs Memorial Beach, between the
White Street Pier and the West Martello Fort, in observance of the International Day for the Remembrance of
the Slave Trade and its Abolition, declared by the United Nations General
continues a tradition established in recent years to honor the memory of the
295 African refugees who were buried at the site in the spring of 1860, and the
heroism and generosity of the Key West community who came to their aid when
they and their fellow captives, totaling 1,432 in number, were rescued by the
United States Navy from three American slave ships bound illegally for Cuba,
and were brought into the southernmost city, whose population at the time was
only around 3,000.
leadership of U.S. Marshal Fernando Moreno, housing was hastily constructed for
the survivors of the horrific ocean crossings, and members of the community
donated food, clothing, blankets, and other necessities to the unexpected
visitors as they arrived at separate times from the three captures.
themselves also quickly formed a kind of impromptu community in their new
surroundings, where observers noted the due deference was shown to individuals
known to have ben of higher social rank, according to traditional practices and
children were collectively cared for.
of the Africans in Key West during their twelve weeks of detention there as
they awaited being returned to Africa (not their original homelands but the
American colony of Liberia), by order of President Buchanan, gained nationwide attention,
drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from around the country to Key West,
where the Africans had become well enough known to the community to be given
such nicknames as “the Princess,” resulting in their story being featured in
such national publications as Frank
Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s
Weekly, and further fueling, as the word reached Congress, the increasingly
acrimonious discourse as the nation hurtled inexorably toward the outbreak of
full Civil War less than a year later.
in the course of their twelve-week detention in Key West, in spite of all the
care and attention that could be provided from both within and outside of the improvised
African community, death would inevitably claim its portion of individuals,
mostly children and youth, on an almost daily basis, who failed to recover from
the illnesses and abominable conditions that they had endured while aboard the
ships, and, in the final count fully 295 perished, for whom coffins were
ordered by Marshal Moreno, and they would be carried in long processions from the
so-called “slave depot,” to the burial place, from which the mourners returned
in perfect silence.
It is the
memory of those lives, and the millions more that mattered, as well as the inspiring
heroism, fortitude, generosity, compassion, and sheer indomitability of the
human spirit that are honored by the International Day, which is actually
August 23, anniversary of the start of the ultimately successful Haitian
Revolution in 1794, a date chosen by the UN to emphasize the fact that Africans
themselves were the primary agents in bringing about the eventual global Abolition
of the human trafficking known as the “slave trade,” although it remains a
story with universal human appeal and importance.
Day of Remembrance serves to ensure that the full, accurate, and often inspiring
story of the Middle Passage, and the tens of millions of lives it affected in
such devastating ways is never lost or forgotten by future generations.
Key West has
been a leader among American cities in holding annual observances of the day,
which include traditional opening ceremonies and prayers, performances,
historical information, and open “Village Talk.”
is made possible by the generous cooperation of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum,
Monroe County, the City of Key West, and the Florida Black Historical Research
free and open to the public; for further information, call 305-904-7620.