Celebrating Black History in Key West

Celebrating Black History in Key West

Black History Month (February 1–March 1) here in Key West encourages reflection on the long and deep connection between people of African ancestry and the land that became Florida. In this special edition of the BG Blog, we dive deep into the role Black people played in the history of Florida and our island paradise.

African Roots in the Caribbean

Even though many of the earliest African-Americans arrived under extreme duress, they played key roles in the birth of the nation that became the United States. The first Black people arrived in North America during Spanish exploration and colonization of the Caribbean, Florida, and the southeastern seaboard in the early 1500s, and African people and their cultural influences are foundational elements of post-indigenous human settlement in the Caribbean islands and South Florida.

Spanish slavers began bringing Africans to Spain soon after the Portuguese started the trade in 1444, and there was a significant Black Spanish population decades before Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492. Most of these slaves were artisans, craftsmen, members of the military, and even royal servants of the Spanish Crown. Slaves in Catholic Spain had some rights and legal protections, and those who converted to Catholicism were often granted freedom.

In the Spanish colonial era, the import of African slaves as labor for mines and plantations in the West Indies began soon after the establishment of the colonies of New Spain. Workers were needed as efforts to enslave the indigenous Caribbean island tribes failed when European diseases wiped out 80% of the natives by the end of the 1400s. Spanish exploration soon moved on to the North American mainland, and historical records show evidence of at least 3 people of African descent arriving in Florida with the Ponce De Leon expedition in 1513.

Black people, both enslaved and free, accompanied many subsequent Spanish expeditions to Florida. By the time Spanish colonists established St. Augustine in 1565, many slaves had escaped from the conquistadors and established their own culture in the vast and rich wilderness of the coastal southeast. They came to be called Maroons, and lived in settlements along the sea island coasts of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The Maroon communities soon included people who had never been enslaved.

Black Pirates of the Caribbean

After the English, French, and Dutch colonized the smaller islands of the West Indies and established plantations there, Black slaves began to be imported directly from Africa to replace the original labor force of mostly Irish white slaves and indentured servants. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade soon expanded to include North America as the English and French displaced the Spanish in the southeast.

This Triangular Trade involved carrying manufactured goods like tools, weapons, and alcohol from Europe to Africa. These were traded to African slavers for captives to bring from Africa to the New World. The ships then returned to Europe loaded with sugar, molasses, tobacco, cotton, furs, and other raw materials along with exotic goods like coffee, indigo, and spices.

The slave ships carrying their valuable human cargos through Caribbean waters were a temptation to pirates. Built with the huge profits from the Triangular Trade, these sleek, fast, yet durable vessels were perfect for conversion into pirate ships. Pirates captured the slave ships, then sold the Africans to plantations or used them as servants.

Ironically, the marauding pirates also offered the enslaved Africans opportunities to seize freedom and earn respect. Pirate captains had little regard for the racist ideas behind the slave trade, and the dangers of their profession created a constant need for good crew members. Crews tended to be inclusive—the only fixed requirement was willingness to live, fight, and die (or be hanged) as a sea bandit—and many pirates were already accustomed to sailing with free Blacks from among the Maroons and other groups in the region.

As time went on, many Africans from the captured slave ships began to join pirate crews as a means of survival in freedom, and they were soon widely accepted into the highly diverse and relatively democratic ranks of the Caribbean pirates. It is a little-known fact that on many pirate ships, including the one captained by the famed Blackbeard—Englishman Edward Teach, Black men and women comprised nearly half the crew, and many former slaves went on to become well-known pirate captains themselves.

Ending the Evil: Key West Plays a Role

Congress outlawed the African slave trade on January 1, 1808, but slave ships continued to sail the waters of the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico. In the early 1820s, the U.S. government ruled that Americans participating in the illegal trade would be prosecuted as pirates. To that end, the West Indies Squadron of the U.S. Navy was formed and based at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands until the Pensacola Naval Yard was completed in 1826.

The Squadron was assigned to eliminate pirates and slavers from U.S. territorial waters in the Caribbean and around Florida. This effort was largely successful, and according to the United States government, piracy in the region was eliminated by March of 1825, although isolated incidents occurred up until the 1830s. Key West served as a port for some of the U.S. ships during the antipiracy campaign, and this period left the island with a unique, important piece of Black history.

More than 1,400 African men, women, and children rescued from slave ships were transported to Key West, where housing and a hospital were built for them. Most of the kidnapped Africans were returned to Africa, but 295 died in Key West from illnesses and injuries caused by the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships. The victims were buried in unmarked graves along the island’s southern shore and forgotten. Later, the construction of the West Martello tower covered part of the burial area.

Historical research revealed the existence of the burial ground in the area of Higgs Beach, and the site was marked and memorialized in 2001. When ground-penetrating radar revealed more than 100 graves in the cemetery, the burial ground was consecrated and enclosed on three sides with decorative fencing. The Key West African Refugee Cemetery, the only known site of its kind in the United States, is now a National Historic Place, and the interred slaves are commemorated with an inspiring memorial.

Key West’s Afro-Caribbean Heritage

The Bahamas is a group of Caribbean islands that lie only about 50 miles from Florida’s east coast at their closest point. The islands have a majority Black population that emerged from varied and interesting historical roots.

The largest city, Nassau, on the island of New Providence, was the capital of Caribbean piracy from 1690 to 1720. Initially, the English governors of the island would put up an appearance of suppressing piracy, but they were actually in the pay of pirate captains via bribes pulled from the rich booty pillaged from British trading ships loaded with goods from India other colonies. For a period in the early 18th century, when a combined Franco-Spanish fleet attacked Nassau in 1703 and again in 1706, routing the British navy, there was no English government presence on the island.

Nassau became a pirate Republic, with Blackbeard elected as the Magistrate and thousands of pirates, rogues, merchants, and wild women drawn to a thriving lawless community until the British reestablished control in 1718. During this freewheeling period, Black pirates came ashore in Nassau and throughout the 30 or so inhabited islands of the Bahamas to join the descendants of Spanish Maroons and those of slaves brought by the British colonists.

Then, during and after the American War of Independence in the late 18th century, thousands of British loyalists took their African slaves and left the American colonies for the Bahamas. When the British put an end to the international slave trade in 1807, the Royal Navy liberated many Africans from illegal slave ships and resettled them in the Bahamas. In 1837, slavery was abolished in the Bahamas, prompting hundreds of Africans to flee slavery in America and make their way to the islands.

Bahama Village is Born

Proximity to the Keys made the Bahamas an important source of influence and immigration from the earliest days of settlement in Key West and along the Florida Keys. With the Revolutionary War over, by the early 19th century Bahamians of both European and African descent began regularly visiting the Keys to fish, gather sponges, salvage shipwrecks, and harvest timber. Bahamians soon began immigrating to the growing settlement of Key West looking for better economic opportunities than could be found in the Bahamas.

Many Black Bahamians settled on the southwest edge of Key West town, in the neighborhood between Whitehead Street and the naval and military base area now designated as Truman annex. The community, known as Bahama Village, reflected the residents’ Afro-Caribbean heritage in the building styles and colors, lush growth of imported tropical plants, traditional foods, and cultural customs. The arrival of Black Cubans, Chinese, and other cultural groups added to the spice and diversity of the area.

The people of Bahama Village participated in and contributed to the Key West economy with their crafts, trades, and labor. At the same time, they maintained their own religious and educational traditions and institutions, and expressed their cultural roots via food, music, and various community activities. A vibrant multi-ethnic enclave was established within the larger and rapidly growing town of Key West, and Petronia Street, lined with Black-owned businesses, entertainment spots, and ethnic restaurants, became the heart of Bahama Village.

The Caribbean Spirit Lives On

Today, though their community is threatened by development, the people of Bahama Village still hold on to their Caribbean roots. The neighborhood is home to one of the best parties in town when the Goombay Festival kicks off Fantasy Fest week each year with an exciting parade and street party. Caribbean Junkanoos and reggae music set the vibe as locals and visitors alike crowd the Village to enjoy the elaborate costumes, traditional arts and crafts, spicy tropical cuisine, and good times for all.

You can dive deeper into the history of Black Bahamians in Key West at the Custom House Museum of Art and History. The Key West Art & Historical Society is honoring Black History Month with an exhibition titled “Bahama Village: Relics of a Fading Community” at Bryan Gallery through March 19. Rare photos and artifacts tell the inspiring story of the Black and indigenous people who make up one of the island’s most influential founding communities.

Island History is the February Highlight

The residents of Bahama Village are key players among the many characters who have populated the island stage during the past two centuries in decidedly exotic and always diverse Key West. If you would like to add more context to background this brief glimpse into the Black experience in Key West, island history is the theme of several February special events packed around the President’s Day weekend holiday.

On Friday February 17th, the Key West Art & Historical Society’s Annual Fundraiser Dinner takes the form of a Prohibition Party with the historic East Martello Tower transformed into the A1A Speakeasy. Open-bar cocktails and swinging jazz provide the background for a catered surf n’ turf dinner followed by a digestif of delicious local Caribbean rum and hand-rolled cigars in the Rumrunners Cigar Lounge. And all in support of a good cause—ongoing restoration work at the beautiful Custom House Key West Museum of Art & History.

On February 17th and 18th, the Old Island Restoration Foundation hosts the February session of their 63rd Annual Home Tours. Each year, the Foundation invites visitors into 20 classic 19th and 20th century Key West homes chosen for historic and/or architectural interest, island prominence, family history, antique and fine art collections and other fascinating details. Split into groups of 4 or 5 homes for tour dates spread across 4 months December–March, the home tours are a fund raiser to support the Foundation’s mission of preserving and promoting the unique architecture, culture, and history of Key West.

And what would Presidents’ Day Weekend be without recognition of Key West’s former “local” Chief Executive, President Harry S. Truman? The 33rd president of the United States spent 175 days spread over 11 visits to his winter white house at 111 Front Street in Key West. Now the Harry S. Truman Little White House museum and event center, the historic home is Florida’s only presidential museum. On February 18–20 the Key West Harry S. Truman Foundation and the Society of Presidential Descendants presents a series of special events in honor of the annual Presidential Families Weekend.

Play Your Own Part in Key West History

If you are exploring the possibilities of owning your own piece of Key West history, you may want to check out our ongoing 1st Time Home Buyer Class series. This free public service program is headed up by two of our Bascom Grooms realtors and local real estate experts: Britannie Wesley (Education Chair–Key West Association of Realtors) and Micaela Eleicegui. Whether you are a first-time home buyer or simply new to Florida Keys real estate, these classes offer the opportunity to pick up inside information from the pros including local mortgage lenders’ representatives.

You will find valuable tips, interactive discussion, and plenty of Q & A time—all in a fun casual atmosphere with free snacks and refreshments provided. The next class is coming up Monday, February 20 at Bel Mare Restaurant, 700 Front Street, Key West. To RSVP or get more information about the 1st Time Home Buyer Class series, or for answers to any of your questions about buying Florida Keys real estate, call/text Britannie at (786) 915-1402 or email: BWESLEY@BASCOMGROOMS.COM. Also, be sure to watch Bascom Grooms Real Estate on Facebook for the latest updates.