In Plain Sight: Secrets Beneath the Sands of Higgs Beach

Even in its most picture-perfect settings, the Florida coastline harbors many secrets about the past. At Higgs Beach in Key West, for example, visitors enjoy the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico only yards away from one of the most unique cemeteries in the United States.

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

The cemetery, which only recently received proper investigation and recognition, originally contained the remains of nearly 300 Africans brought to Key West after they were confiscated by the U.S. Navy from ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery was still legal in much of the United States in 1860, the international slave trade was not. Consequently, when the American-owned vessels Wildfire, William, and Bogota sailed into the Caribbean attempting to deliver their human cargo to Cuba, they were seized, along with more than a thousand African men, women, and children.

The slave deck of the bark

The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, one of three brought to Key West after being seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (Harper’s Weekly, 1860).

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship Williams, one of three vessels captured by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (drawing 1860).

The African refugees arrived malnourished and weak from their long trans-Atlantic voyage, and hundreds died while awaiting their fate in Key West. As many as 14 died in a single day – many were children. Scrambling to accommodate these unexpected arrivals, the U.S. marshal at Key West, Fernando Moreno, erected housing and a hospital for the Africans. Officials called the structure a “barracoon,” borrowing terminology used by slave traders operating on the African coast. The building was divided into nine large rooms so the sexes and children of different ages could be separated.

A print from Harper's Weekly depicting the

A print from Harper’s Weekly depicting the “barracoon” in which the African refugees were housed while awaiting their fate (1860).

While the Africans were at Key West, Moreno and other federal personnel guarded them vigilantly. Even with the illegality of the slave trade, these individuals were considered highly valuable in a region where slavery was still legal. Officials were concerned that someone might attempt to kidnap some of the Africans, or that they might attempt to escape. The guards mounted artillery pieces to defend against potential attacks, and deployed a police force consisting of Marines and local citizens.

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of “princess” by whites who visited the Africans, on account of her “fine personal appearance and the deference that seemed to be paid to her by some of her companions” (1860).

As Moreno and the federal agents at Key West grappled with the difficulties of maintaining such a large group of guests, the United States government investigated ways of getting the refugees back to Africa. Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated a contract with the American Colonization Society to take the Africans to Liberia, a country on the west African coast founded with support from the U.S. as a resettlement location. The first group left Key West for Africa on July 3, 1860, with another group following about two weeks later.

According to a report published in the New York Times, many of the Africans asked not to be returned to Africa, but this may have been a mistaken interpretation. It was more likely the trans-Atlantic journey itself they most feared, and with good reason. Many had died on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, and hundreds more would perish en route to Liberia.

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

Not long after the last African refugee left Key West, the Civil War broke out, deflecting attention to other matters. The scores of graves at Higgs Beach were mostly forgotten, save for a few references in histories of the island. Over time, the construction of new military installations and roads in the area greatly disturbed the burials, further obscuring their story. Local researchers began a movement to properly identify and recognize the cemetery around 2000. The Florida Department of State erected a historical marker for the site in 2001, and archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to locate at least nine distinct graves the following year. In 2012, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery is particularly unique because its inhabitants were African, yet they never served as slaves, nor were they free. As researchers have explained during the course of the investigation, there are few if any sites of this kind in the Americas.

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!

 

 

Jacksonville’s First African-American Lawyer: Joseph E. Lee

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Joseph E. Lee was one of the most influential African-American men in Florida during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For over four decades, Lee worked as a public servant, acting at various times as a state legislator, a lawyer, federal customs collector, and educator.

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Lee was born in Philadelphia in 1849, and graduated from Howard University with a law degree in 1873. He moved to Florida that same year and was admitted to the bar, making him the first African-American lawyer in Jacksonville, and one of the first in the state. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1875 to 1879, and in the State Senate from 1881 to 1882. In April 1888, Lee was elected Municipal Judge of Jacksonville, the first African-American to have this honor. Around this time he also served as the dean of the law department of Edward Waters College, an African-American institute of higher learning formed in 1866 to educate freed former slaves. Lee would remain a trustee of the college for over thirty years.

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Joseph Lee also participated in state and local politics, serving as Chairman of the Duval County Republican Party and secretary of the party’s statewide organization for nearly forty years. The Joseph E. Lee Papers housed at the State Archives of Florida (Collection M86-027) contain dozens of letters from around the state asking for Lee’s counsel on matters regarding political strategy. The two letters below pertain to a particularly dramatic situation in 1916, in which the Democratic vote for the governorship of Florida was split between two candidates, Sidney J. Catts and William V. Knott. Republicans hoped that with the Democratic vote divided as it was during the primary, the Republican candidate, George W. Allen, would have a good chance of winning the general election. Republicans were almost never elected to statewide offices during this period, as their African-American supporters were generally restricted from voting, and white voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. In the first letter, John Edwards of DeLand asks Lee how he should advise the Republican voters of his county since their candidate, Allen, was reputed to be from the “lily-white” faction of the party that favored a conservative approach to African-American civil rights. In the second letter, Lee replies that despite Allen’s positions in this regard, he would be voting the entire Republican ticket, Allen included, and he hoped the Republicans of DeLand would do the same.

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Joseph E. Lee died March 25, 1920, but his leadership was remembered in a number of lasting tributes. Civil rights leaders James Weldon Johnson and A. Phillip Randolph both remembered Lee as having been a memorable influence on their lives, and to this day a Joseph E. Lee Republican Club still operates in Jacksonville.

Who are the leading lights from your community or county? Search Florida Memory to find photos and documents of other great Floridians like Joseph E. Lee.

Have You Heard of Milwaukee Springs?

Milwaukee Springs was a segregated African-American recreational area operating northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County at least as early as 1940. During World War II, white and African-American leaders alike had high hopes it would be turned into a health and recreation facility for African-American soldiers stationed at Camp Blanding and elsewhere.

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only image Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County.  Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only photograph Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County. Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

One of the earliest references to Milwaukee Springs comes from a biennial report of the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission published in 1940, which briefly notes that the commission’s game technician had participated in a wildlife camp for African-American boys held at this location.

The site surfaces again in the paper trail during World War II. As war clouds threatened during the months before Pearl Harbor, the state government and local communities organized defense councils to coordinate preparations for the U.S. to enter the conflict.  With Jim Crow in full force throughout Florida at this time, communities frequently used separate organizations to coordinate the wartime efforts of African-American civilians, with their leaders keeping in close contact with their white counterparts for the sake of cooperation.

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

Managing and rationing supplies and manpower were critical, of course, but these defense councils also planned for recreation, for civilians and soldiers alike.  A number of African-American leaders were concerned that troops of their race had too few options for recreational activities, which was bad for morale. A group of local Alachua County citizens led by Charles Chestnut, president of the Colored Businessmen’s Association of Gainesville and chairman of a local African-American civil defense organization, proposed that Milwaukee Springs be converted into a facility to provide African-American soldiers with a place to relax during their time away from Camp Blanding or other nearby military posts.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941 (Series 419 – Papers of the State Defense Council, Box 33, State Archives of Florida)

Chestnut’s proposal won the endorsement of local Alachua County representative Samuel Wyche Getzen, and together these men called on Mary McLeod Bethune of the federal Office of Negro Affairs and Executive Secretary James White of the NAACP for help in getting the federal government involved.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives.  Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929.  Photo dated 1959.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929. Photo dated 1959.

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus.  The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration (circa 1940s).

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (circa 1940s).

Although the Federal Security Administration appears to have visited the site to consider the project’s worthiness, and a public hearing was held to discuss the matter in early 1942, it is unclear whether Milwaukee Springs ever became the center of African-American health and recreation its sponsors had hoped for.  In fact, aside from a few references in the documents of Florida’s State Defense Council and the papers of the NAACP, very little else exists to document the site.

If you or someone you know has more information about Milwaukee Springs, we’d love to know about it.  Contact us using our web feedback form, and mention this blog post in the subject line.