Key West’s Unique African Refugee Cemetery

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Visitors to Key West's Higgs Beach might not pay much attention to the small rectangle of beachfront fenced off from the rest and flanked by tall columns. If they don't, however, they're missing the chance to view an extraordinary piece of America's past: a site that experts believe is the only African refugee cemetery in the United States.

The cemetery's importance was recognized in 2012 when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a nationally significant archaeological site.

The burial ground's location was confirmed 10 years earlier, when a survey using ground-penetrating radar revealed the presence of graves on the county-owned beach.

According to Corey Malcom, director of archeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, the graves are almost certainly those of Africans who died in 1860 after being freed by the U.S. Navy from three American-owned slave ships captured near the Cuban coast and brought to Key West for sanctuary.

"This is not a slave cemetery; it's a cemetery of African refugees. I don't know of any comparable sites in the New World," said Malcom, whose research and that of Florida Keys historian Gail Swanson led to the discovery of the cemetery site.

According to records kept by U.S. Marshal Fernando Moreno in 1860, more than 1,400 African men, women and children were transported to Key West after being rescued from the slave vessels. Key West workers quickly built housing and a hospital for them.

While most of the refugees were eventually returned to Africa, 295 died at Key West, most likely from illnesses resulting from the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships. They were buried in unmarked graves along the island's southern shore.

Two years later, construction began on a martello tower that encompassed part of the cemetery site, and the graves were forgotten.

In 2001, after research revealed that the cemetery was located somewhere in the Higgs Beach area, the Key West African Memorial Committee and the Old Island Restoration Foundation unveiled a state of Florida historic plaque opposite the beach to tell the refugees' story.

In June 2002, hoping to pinpoint the cemetery's exact location without disturbing any possible traces of human remains, Malcom called in Dr. Lawrence Conyers of Denver, a recognized expert in the use of ground-penetrating radar. During a three-day survey of the Higgs Beach and martello tower area, Conyers located at least nine and possibly as many as 15 graves.

Since that discovery, ceremonies to reconsecrate the ground and venerate the buried Africans have been performed at the site by African tribal dignitaries. In addition, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society created an extensive exhibition telling the Africans' story.

In 2010, additional surveys revealed at least 100 more graves in the area. Today, the cemetery is marked by a series of pedestals adorned with African Adinkra symbols and topped with engraved bronze plaques. A concrete base features a rendition of the slave trade's maritime route, while a tile mural is inlaid into the platform riser and ornamental fencing encloses the site on three sides.

These elements combine to reflect the cultures of the people buried in the cemetery and how they came to be so far from home. Future plans call for the addition of a traditional African-inspired shrine structure and an obelisk that functions as a sundial.

After nearly 15 years of research and effort, Key West's African refugee cemetery is recognized as a uniquely significant heritage site — and the Africans buried there are remembered and honored.

For more travel news from the Florida Keys and Key West, visit Keys Traveler.

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