Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Other Key West

Florida Keys History: African-American Landmarks & Sites

Florida Keys history is rich and diverse, with African American landmarks and legacies in various locations throughout the state. The following historical sites can be found in Monroe County. While some of these sites can be visited, other listings are marked "private" and are not open to the public.
Historical Sites in Key West
Bahama Village

Bordered by Whitehead, Louisa, Fort and Angela Streets Key West’s Bahama Village is a time capsule of unique residences, businesses, churches and community centers that were built during the 1800s when several hundred free blacks came from the Bahamas along with white Bahamian (English) settlers. Homes were built on land owned by John Simonton, William Whitehead, and John Fleming. Bahama Village was part of the original platted section of what is now downtown Key West. It's a great stop to experience Bahamian culture.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

223 Truman Avenue
The original church building was first established in 1878, in the 700 block of Duval Street. The Ku Klux Klan was rumored to be the culprit when it burned down in 1922. Reconstruction began in 1923. It's an important stop on a tour of Florida Keys history.
Bill Butler Park

Poorhouse Lane near the City Cemetery
This was the site of the county’s home for indigent senior citizens, also known as Monroe County Colored Folks Home. In 1986 the City created a park to honor the memory of William “Bill” Butler, a musician and founding father of the Key West Junkanoos and member of the Welter’s Coronet Band. The park is the site of the New Year’s morning Junkanoo Parade, a celebration with African roots which began in the Bahamas in the 17th century to preserve African cultural traditions in danger of being lost in the displacement process of the slave trade.
The Church of God of Prophecy

815 Elizabeth Street
Constructed in the late 1920s, this building began as an 800-square-foot family dwelling. Brother Kemp, a black Bahamian, and his protégé, John Bruce Knowles, Sr., remodeled it. This church was also called the “Jumper Church.”

The Community Pool at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Community Center

300 Catherine Street
The City of Key West built this pool for African Americans in 1946, when Key West beaches were segregated.

Cornish Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

702 Whitehead Street
This wood-frame, Gothic Revival structure is the oldest AME Zion church in Florida. Built in 1903, it is named in honor of Sandy Cornish, an early Bahamian immigrant who founded the congregation.

Higgs Beach Historic Marker

Atlantic Boulevard
In 1860, African men, women and children being transported to Cuba on three American-owned ships, to be sold into slavery, were rescued by the U.S. Navy and brought to Key West. Local authorities took responsibility for the Africans while in Key West. While some returned to Africa, 294 were too ill to make the journey and died. They were buried in a mass grave on Higgs Beach where West Martello Tower now stands.

Key West Cemetery

Frank E. Adams, a black man, was the first law-enforcement officer in the Keys to be killed in the line of duty. Adams carried a gun and a badge as a Deputy Sheriff when few blacks in the nation held such jobs. Adams died on October 7, 1901, and was buried the next day. The location of his grave remained a mystery until it was discovered that Adams was not buried in the traditional black section of the cemetery because he was Catholic.

Nelson English Park

Corner of Thomas and Amelia Streets
Located in Bahama Village, this park is named for the African American civic leader who was the island’s postmaster from 1882 to 1886.

St. James First Missionary Baptist Church

312 Olivia Street
This church was founded in 1876 by freed blacks from Georgia, Alabama and North Florida who had come to the Keys to work on Henry Flagler’s railroad. Today’s masonry building is built around the wood original.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

800 Center Street
St. Peter’s is the oldest black Anglican Church in the Diocese of South Florida. It was designed and built in 1923 by Joseph Hannibal, a Key West native and son of Shadrack Hannibal, a runaway slave. The church was founded in 1875. A hurricane blew down the original building.

Trinity Presbyterian Street

717 Simonton Street
Served by ministers from the Bahamas on a quarterly basis until 1895, Trinity English Wesleylan Methodist Church was then accepted in the St. John’s Presbytery, and its name changed to Trinity Presbyterian. Established by both black and white Bahamians, the congregation was truly integrated, with no designated seating.

Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church

619 Petronia Street
Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church began when the congregation sought to join the U.S Presbyterian denomination because English ministers stopped coming from the Bahamas to serve Trinity, then the only English Wesleyan Methodist Church in America. George Allen, Sr., became an ordained pastor, and all pastors since have come from within the Allen Family. As a result, Trinity is informally known as Reverend Allen’s Church or the Allen Family Church.

Truman Little White House

111 Front Street
At the “Little White House,” on December 3, 1951, President Harry S. Truman, wrote the fourth Executive Order establishing the Committee on Government Contract Compliance to secure better compliance by contractors and subcontractors with laws that forbade discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin. Truman announced the Executive Order to the press from the steps of this building. It's a significant part of Florida Keys history.

V.F.W. American Legion Hall

803 Emma Street
Architect and County Mayor C.B. Harvey donated plans for the building. Also known as the Black Town Hall, the building was constructed in 1951 by its members. The hall is named to commemorate blacks killed in World War I (William Weech American Legion Post) and World War II (Walter Mickens V.F.W. Post 6021).
Photos from my own archive to illustrate this Visit Florida article.