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!

 

 

The Lewis Plantation

With summer on the way and the school year coming to a close for many districts, Floridians can expect an uptick in the number of tourists coming into the state to enjoy its many natural and man-made attractions. Over the years, Florida has been home to a wide variety of tourist attractions, some beautiful, some exotic, and some that would be quite shocking if they were around today.

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The Lewis Plantation, a tourist stop just south of Brooksville on U.S. 41 in Hernando County, falls squarely into the last category. After operating for a number of years merely as one of Florida’s many turpentine distilleries, its owner, Pearce Lewis, hit upon a scheme in the 1930s to tap into the booming tourist industry. After making a few adjustments to the buildings and adding a few vintage objects, Lewis rebranded the distillery as an “authentic” antebellum plantation, and invited visitors to come see what life had been like in the South before slavery was abolished. So far, this may not sound too different from most other historic plantation sites and museums, but with the Lewis Plantation there was a twist. Because Lewis already had dozens of workers, mostly African-American, operating the turpentine distillery on the site, he decided to incorporate them into the tourist attraction, so that his employees doubled as reenactors of antebellum slavery.

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

For a nominal fee (fifteen cents in the early days) visitors to the Lewis Plantation could take a tour of the grounds in a mule-drawn wagon. Along the way, they could see the actual homes where the African-American employees lived, which were mostly without electricity or running water. Newspaper accounts of the tour commented cheerily on the quaintness of these scenes, noting how closely they resembled what life must have looked like in the slave quarters of the South’s antebellum plantations. Although it was something of an anachronism, the tour usually included a trip to the distillery, where the people who lived in these ramshackle houses carried out the tedious process of extracting turpentine from the sap of nearby stands of pine trees.

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Along the way, the tour guide would often stop and have one of the African-American employees tell a story to the visitors. “Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery in 1860 just before the outbreak of the Civil War, was one of the more popular storytellers, and was at one time featured in the popular Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. The entertainment also sometimes included singing from some of the employees, some of whom were organized into a “harmony quartet.”

“Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery just before the Civil War, at the Lewis Plantation (circa 1940s).

The Lewis Plantation had other amenities, including overnight lodging and a restaurant called “The Plantation Kitchen.” Blanche, an African-American woman who did the cooking during most of the attraction’s lifetime, was described in advertisements as being the “personality” of the kitchen, dressed as a typical antebellum African-American “mammy.” In the souvenir shop nearby, visitors could purchase tradition plantation handicrafts, as well as “pine perfume” and miniature barrels of rosin, a by-product of the turpentine distillation process.

“The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant of the Lewis Plantation (circa 1930s).

Blanche, the cook at

Blanche, the cook at “The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant located at the Lewis Plantation. Blanche is standing outside the main building that housed the restaurant and gift shop (circa 1940s).

Although the Lewis Plantation did very well for a number of years, its days were numbered as the tides of history continued to shift. The labor-intensive process of extracting turpentine from pine sap gave way to other methods, and the idea of reenacting slavery as a tourist attraction was increasingly disturbing to Floridians and visitors alike. By the 1960s, the Lewis Plantation had faded away. Some of the buildings still remain at the old site, although they are overgrown with weeds. Only a handful of postcards, placards, and photographs remain to remind us of the vibrant if somewhat unusual institution that once operated there.

Did you ever visit the Lewis Plantation? How about another “unusual” roadside tourist attraction in Florida? If so, we want to hear about it. Leave a comment, or email us your story.

 

 

State of Florida vs. Luke, a Slave (1853)

This series highlights antebellum cases from the files of the Florida Supreme Court and its predecessor, the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals.

Many antebellum cases before Florida’s Territorial Court of Appeals and Supreme Court involved individuals who left little evidence of their lives in the historical record. This is especially true for cases involving African-American slaves.

In 1853, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case of State of Florida vs. Luke, a slave. Luke stood accused of committing a crime at the behest of his master, Abraham Dupont. Following his master’s orders, Luke killed mules belonging to Joseph M. Hernandez, a planter and Florida militia commander during the Second Seminole War (1835-42). The animals, according to Dupont, had ravaged crops on his land. Adam, a slave and head driver for Hernandez, discovered the mules dead along the road that connected the two plantations with St. Augustine, and traced the source of the deed to Luke.

Page from the Florida Supreme Court case State of Florida vs. Luke, a Slave (1853)

The Circuit Court located in St. Johns County had, in 1851, found Luke guilty of “malicious destruction of property” under Florida’s penal code of 1832. Another issue of note from this case was that Dupont had allowed Luke to carry a firearm, as evidenced by his shooting of the mules. Florida law was unclear about this point. In practice, masters strictly prohibited slaves from keeping firearms, except in cases such as Luke’s where the weapon had a specific purpose.

The lawyer for the defense, McQueen McIntosh, challenged the Circuit Court decision on the grounds that slaves were not afforded protection under the penal code as revised in 1832. The 1832 law outlined separate punishments for blacks and whites who committed the same offense. The debate then turned to whether the 1832 law adequately covered the questions raised by the crimes committed by Luke, or if he should be tried under an earlier law of 1828, specifically, in accordance with the slave codes reserved for bondsmen. In essence, the case boiled down to whether or not Luke was capable of exerting free will, or if he had to kill the mules because he was ordered to do so by his master. If he had no choice in the matter, should his master instead be charged with the crime?

These questions proved too complex for the court to fully consider and the case was vacated on procedural grounds. The judge found that in order to perpetuate the institution of slavery and the superiority of whites over blacks, Luke could not be charged under the 1832 law. The case also brought forward issues involved with the interpretation of the 1828 slave codes, but the court declined to engage the myriad problems arising from the 1828 and 1832 laws as they related to slaves.

This case demonstrated the powerlessness of the enslaved in the antebellum legal system in Florida. As made clear in the case of Luke, white jurists would rather forgive his crimes than allow a slave to stand trial on equal footing with white men.