Monroe County announced this week plans to reconfigure a dog park in Key West believed to be above the graves of Africans who were rescued from the slave trade in 1860.
The dog playground is across the street from an area already recognized as a burial yard.
While slavery was still legal in the U.S. in 1860, importing them was outlawed in 1807.
“But people kept doing it, especially Americans,” said Corey Malcom, director of archaeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.
The American ships would bring the slaves to Cuba, even though Spain had also outlawed the trade. President James Buchanan ordered four Navy steamers to encircle Cuba and look for slave ships, Malcom said. And in the spring of 1860, they caught three of them.
“Those ships were then seized, the crews put in irons and the ships towed here to Key West, the nearest U.S. port.,” Malcom said.
A total of 1,432 Africans from three ships arrived in Key West where the U.S. marshal built a compound with a hospital, barracks and a kitchen to house them until their fate was decided.
But many of the new arrivals were already desperately ill from the horrific voyage across the Atlantic.
“A lot of people here arrived on the island with just incurable diseases, especially lung afflictions, cholera. There was a lot of eye disease. People just couldn’t get over that,” Malcom said. “While they were here, 295 died here in Key West. And they were buried on the southern shore of the island.”
That area was “sort of the hinterlands of the island in 1860,” Malcom said. It had been used as a site for paupers' burials and one of the island’s original graveyards until a hurricane washed it out in 1846 and the city’s main cemetery was moved to higher ground.
The survivors were returned to Africa — though not to their home countries. They were taken to Liberia, a country founded by Americans as a settlement for free black people.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum was already researching the slave trade through its salvage of the Henrietta Marie, a slave vessel that sank off Key West in 1701.
“That opened the doors and opened our eyes to the importance of studying the transatlantic slave trade. And then to realize that something as monumental had happened in 1860 on land here in Key West – that was worthy of study as well and it’s certainly within our scope of research,” Malcom said. “We started wondering, my gosh, this historical evidence is really adding up to a pretty amazing story, kind of pointing all right down to Higgs Beach. Is that cemetery still there? There was nothing marked African Cemetery.”
In 2002, the museum organized a ground-penetrating radar survey to look for the burial site.
“And lo and behold, within an hour we started finding graves, right where we thought they should be,” Malcom said. “Very clearly the African cemetery was still there. It was unmarked. There was a volleyball court on top of it, picnic tables sitting on top of it, but there were graves there, buried in that sand.”
An ad hoc group called the Africans Memorial Committee organized ways to mark the site, with a memorial and a sign telling the story of the Africans who died in Key West. But there were still questions. The researchers knew 295 people had died — but they only found 15 graves.
The West Martello Tower, a fortification that protects Fort Zachary Taylor, was built on that shoreline during the Civil War. Malcom said most of the graves were moved then.
“So it took some more detective work, more historical work to try to figure out where that might be and the evidence pointed pretty clearly that they were most likely just put further inland,” he said.
The researchers worked with the county to organize more ground-penetrating radar surveys.
“We found well over 100 graves, if not more, within those areas, mostly in an area that we recognize today as what’s called the little dog park,” Malcom said. “There they are. We’re pretty sure we’ve found the rest of the bodies.”
That area of the dog park — set aside for smaller dogs — will be moved, Monroe County announced this week. According to a county press release, it’s not confirmed that the site contains graves but the park is being moved “out of an abundance of caution.”