Abolition Day To Be Commemorated At Key West Florida’s 1860 African Burial Ground

The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition is to be commemorated at an oceanfront Key West site believed to be the only African refugee cemetery in the United States.

Presented by Key West’s Bahama Conch Community Land Trust, the observance is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, at the 1860 African Burial Ground on Higgs Beach, Atlantic Boulevard and White Street.

The commemoration is to focus on the progress of a memorial honoring the African refugees buried in the cemetery and goals for making it a World Heritage Site.

Experts believe the burial ground contains the graves 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.

More than 1,400 African men, women and children were transported to Key West for sanctuary, housed and cared for after being rescued from the slave vessels. Most eventually were returned to Africa, but 295 died in Key West, probably from illnesses resulting from the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships. They were buried in unmarked graves along the island’s southern shore.

Shortly afterward, construction began on a Martello tower that encompassed part of the cemetery site, and the Africans’ story was virtually forgotten until historical research and a 2002 ground-penetrating radar analysis revealed the presence of graves.

At the Aug. 23 event, presenters are to include Norma Jean Sawyer of the volunteer committee for the 1860 African Memorial Site Project; Professor Gene Tinnie, lead concept artist for the project; and Nigerian-born artist Johnson Odibi, a contributor to the concept design.

The evening is to include a presentation on the cemetery’s significance to international history and plans to introduce the site and its story to UNESCO for consideration as a potential World Heritage Site.

Storyteller, writer and public radio host Madafo, a representative of the Diaspora Arts Coalition of Miami, is to give an overview of Africans forced into slavery in earlier centuries and the overwhelming affects of the trade. Tinnie plans to share the story of how the African symbols that adorn the cemetery’s columns were chosen, while Odibi will describe the significance of other artwork at the site.

In addition, Sawyer will chronicle the ways Key West residents came together in 1860 to protect and care for the African refugees, and continue to spearhead present-day efforts to preserve the cemetery and its story for future generations.

Performances by ceremonial drummers are expected to round out the events.

Proclaimed by UNESCO, the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition commemorates the start of a 1791 uprising of enslaved Africans in Santo Domingo that played a critical role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

For more information, call Norma Jean Sawyer at (305) 294-0884 or e-mail njsawyer@bahamaconchclt.org.

For lodging information in Key West, contact the Key West Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-LAST-KEY (800-527-8539) or visit the Keys Web site at


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