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 Assembly.
The event 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.
Under the 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.
The Africans 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.
The presence 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
The International 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.”
This event 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 Project, Inc.
Admission is free and open to the public; for further information, call 305-904-7620.