Artist Carlos Delgado represents the final link in a chain of events that started 150 years ago in Africa, and ends on a beach in Key West.
Delgado will spend the coming weeks finalizing the design and decoration of the African Cemetery and Memorial that commemorates Key West’s role in ending the slave trade.
In April 1860, three Navy ships intercepted three other American vessels that were carrying 1,432 people captured in their homes around the Congo River region of Africa and being transported to Cuba, where they would be sold as free labor for the burgeoning sugar industry.
The United States by then had made slave-trading illegal.
Navy personnel rescued the human cargo and brought the people to the shores of Key West, where residents provided food and clothing, built shelter, tended to the sick and buried the 295 Africans who succumbed to disease and other hazards of their forced voyage.
The deceased were buried in unmarked graves next to the West Martello Tower, while the survivors, in August 1860, again boarded ships. This time, they were headed east — back to Africa. But the federal government took the Africans to Liberia in West Africa rather than returning them to their true homes in the Congo and Ghana.
"I always say it was like taking someone from Poland, dropping them off in Portugal and saying they’re home," said Corey Malcom, director of archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, who in 2002 coordinated a ground-penetrating radar survey to identify the unmarked graves at Higgs Beach.
The survey confirmed the presence of at least 15 graves. Malcom and a team of researchers worked to ensure that the graves remained undisturbed, but were appropriately marked.
A concrete slab was poured over the area, and carved cement pillars outline the perimeter. Each pillar, designed by artist Gene Tinnie, features an Adinkra symbol of a West African proverb, while a large mural on the concrete slab shows the continents of Africa and North America, and the island of Cuba. A broad arc represents the journey forced on unwilling passengers.
"It’s graphically telling the story of what happened here," said Delgado, who hopes to finish the painting and staining in about three weeks. He must wait for plaques to be affixed to the top of each pillar before his work is complete.
"The people of Monroe County are stewards of an important and sensitive site," Malcom wrote in a synopsis of the cemetery project. "It is more than the remains of a curious incident from old Key West — it is a place that tells a unique story within a cruel system that worked to profoundly shape societies and cultures throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean basins."