Shortly after sunrise, I stopped at Higgs Beach to leisurely walk the White Street Pier while enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day. From the pier, I took pictures of the West Martello Fort.
The beach had been cleaned and raked smooth earlier by city workers. The temptation to stroll across it was overwhelming, so I did.
As I approached the fort, I noticed a fenced off area with a historic marker.
I discovered a monument paying respect to 294 young Africans, most of whom were between the ages of 12 and 16. They died enroute to Cuba chained together under inhumane conditions in the cargo holds of three American flagged vessels (William, Widfire, and Bogota) involved in the slave running.
It was a year before the Civil War. U.S. Navy ships simulataneously intercepted the three slave trade vessels in waters just off of Cuba. In all, there were 1432 Africans rescued and brought to safety in Key West, the nearest port.
At that time, the island population was barely 3,000. Almost overnight, it increased by fifty percent! The people of Key West rallied to provide the sick and frightened children with food, clothing, medical treatment, and shelter. It was going to take eighty days before a ship could be commissioned to take them back to Liberia.
The two hundred ninety four either died on the slave ships, or shortly after arriving. A local carpenter was commisioned to build 294 coffins and burry them on a remote, sandy beach. One year later, the Civil War began. Florida was a Confederate state, but the Union controlled the Florida Keys. The North decided to build two forts, called martellos, 1.5, and 3.0 miles respectively, from the existing Fort Zachary Taylor on the southernmost tip of the island.
An army engineer informed Washington that the 1.5 mile site fell directly over the graves of the Africans, and asked that the fort site be relocated. Washington refused the request. Construction resulted in the graves being destroyed and used as part of the fill for the fort foundation.
In 2002, a researcher, using a map from 1860, and ground penetrating radar, located 15 intack graves by the fort on Higgs beach. They were 4 to 6 feet in length, and about 2-3 feet below the surface.
The City constructed the African Cemetery memorial over the graves. On the huge concrete slab memorial, the location of each grave is etched out.
After over 150 years, 15 of the African children have finally gotten some public respect. And the majority of those whose graves were disrespected by the Federal Government, have now been forever memorialized. However, this is not the end of the story.
Directly across the street from the African Cemetery is an expansive City Dog Park. Strong rumor has it that additional graves have since been located within in the dog park. Perhaps because of the added expense, perhaps because of all the potential political hub bub, perhaps because city officials may feel enough has already been done ~ no known plans are underway to do anything about it.
It certainly was a very informative walk this morning. I also learned that, even with a great cup of coffee, somethings are still very hard to swallow.
~ GJ Duerrschmidt