Excerpted from: Artika R. Tyner, The Forgotten Story, Enduring Legacy, and Meaning of Slavery in America, 44 Human Rights 2 (2019) (Full Document)

Key West is known for sunshine and being a vacation paradise. It is the most southern tip of the United States, 90 miles from Cuba. You can embark on an adventure through a trolley ride, visit President Harry Truman's “Little Whitehouse,” walk the legendary trails of Ernest Hemingway and eat countless slices of key lime pie. The warm weather, delicious food, and cultural diversity will have you book the next trip upon arrival. Our American Bar Association GPSolo Spring Meeting provided me with the opportunity to fully indulge in the Florida sunshine experience. When my tour guide mentioned the African Cemetery, I embarked upon a path of exploration and self-discovery.

A missing chapter of the Key West tourist experience is a memorial site that is nestled on the shores of Higgs Beach. It provides a glimpse into the horrific human degradation and deprivation of human dignity experienced during the Transatlantic slave trade.

During the period between the late 1600s and early 1800s, millions of Africans were enslaved and placed on slave ships headed to the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean. This treacherous voyage from Africa to America could take from three weeks to three months. Many died at sea before reaching the distant land. Slaves were chained together and left to wade in pools of their own blood, urine, and feces. One eighteenth-century ship observer wrote, “The floor of the rooms was so covered with blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of dysentery that it resembled a slaughterhouse.” Notably, you could smell a slave ship before it was even physically visible.

By 1820, transporting slaves across the ocean had been declared illegal. This did not end slavery in the United States but only restricted new Africans from being transported to the United States and Europe. In 1860, three American-owned ships headed to Cuba were captured in Key West, Florida, due to their contents--illegal cargo referred to as “slaves.” The three ships were the Bogota, Wildfire, and William. Almost 1,500 Africans were on board when the ships were captured by the U.S. Navy. Two hundred ninety-five people died during the 85 days they were in Key West. The survivors were sent to Liberia for the possibility of resettlement. Many did not survive and died at sea before reaching Liberia.

The history of the African Cemetery was discovered in 1997 by historian Gail Swanson. The memorial site is located on the shores of Higgs Beach. The center of the memorial is a compass surrounded by a map of the world, which illustrates the route of the slave trade from the distant shores of Benin and the Congo to the United States. The backdrop is the clear blue still waters of the Atlantic Ocean. You are greeted by a gentle breeze with the sun beaming in your eyes.

The sayings alongside the memorial help to connect the past, present, and future. The sayings are beautifully engraved into each post. Some of them are featured below:

Nkonsonkonson reminds us that “we are linked by blood in life and death.” The symbol is a chain that connects the slave experience with a rich legacy of perseverance, tenacity, community, and faith.

Gye Nyame sets forth the omnipotent nature of God: “I fear nothing in the Universe, except God.” This reflects the African connection with a deep and unwavering faith in holding on to God's unchanging hand.

Mate Masie challenges each of us to gain wisdom, knowledge, and prudence through the exploration of history.

Osram means “the moon does not hasten on its way around the world.” This is a symbol of steadiness, peace, and patience.

Nyame Birini Wo Soro is a symbol of hope and faith. “God, I know there is something in the heavens.” This saying also reflects the Brazilian proverb: “Don't tell God that you have a great problem. Tell your problem that you have a great God.”

Wawa Aba compels us to look to the Wawa tree as inspiration for its hardiness, toughness, and endurance. This unwavering tenacity is reflected in the fact this passage typically was nearly six weeks in the most inhumane, unsanitary, grueling conditions.

Epa is reflected by handcuffs as a reminder that “you are the property of the one who handcuffs you were.” This is a symbol of justice and equality for all. It also acknowledges human dignity as the foundation of natural law.

Sankofa reflects the philosophy of “go back and fetch it.” It also means “we must return to the source.”

Sankofa marks both the beginning and the end of the memorial. As I passed the circle, I was challenged to retrieve and remember what was lost. Not cargo, not money, not slaves, but African men, women, and children. Someone's mother, brother, aunt, or husband boarded these fleets at a point of no return. Two hundred ninety-five individuals with a name, story, culture, and heritage were laid to rest at this site. However, their stories live on as we challenge modern-day slavery in the form of mass incarceration, human trafficking, discrimination, bigotry, and hatred.

[. . .]

2019 marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans' arrival in the United States in 1619. This is a time to pause, reflect, and act. Momentum is building nationally and globally. In 2013, the UN declared 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent to “promote respect, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent.” Furthermore, H.R.1242--400 Years of African-American History Commission Act--was passed on May 1, 2017, and established the Commission to develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. Moreover, Ghana President Akufo-Addo declared a clarion call to take action by declaring this year as “The Year of Return.”

The time is now for a Sankofa moment. Sankofa reflects the philosophy of “go back and fetch it.” It also means “we must return to the source.” Through a candid discussion about the legacy of slavery, we first must pay homage to the enslaved Africans who shaped the course of world history and advanced global development through their hard work, fierce determination, and unwavering faith. Their blood, sweat, and tears nourished the fertile soil of our global economies. As we experience a Sankofa moment, we will also discover our shared humanity and common destiny. This will challenge each of us to keep our hands on the plow by eradicating the injustices manifested in our laws and policies. Hold on, hold steadfast to the cause of justice and freedom for all!

The author dedicates this article to the princes and princesses buried on the shores of Key West. Lest, we forget.

Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, sought-after speaker, and advocate for justice. At the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Tyner serves as the associate vice president of Diversity and Inclusion and founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice.

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