Freedom Comes to Key West

[Please note: an incomplete version of this edition of Civil War Emancipation went out earlier by accident–my apologies.]

It is normal these days to think of Key West, Florida, as simply an attractive vacation destination. As Florida’s southern-most community, surrounded by water on all sides, it is an attractive location for people from more northern climes to escape winter’s bite. Yet during the Civil War, Key West was a different sort of place. Certainly, it was already on its way to becoming a winter refuge. However, the Overseas Railroad and Overseas Highway were still decades away, and in 1863, Key West was only accessible by water. But it was still an important community long before the Civil War, with a sizable population of about 2800 people in 1860, who made a living by fishing, shipping, making salt, and the lucrative business of salvaging the region’s many shipwrecks.

The U.S. Navy quickly recognized the value of Key West when Florida became part of the United States in 1821, establishing a base there from which it could project American naval power into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to suppress piracy and the international slave trade. The U.S. Army followed suit in the 1840s, beginning the construction of Fort Zachary Taylor, finally finishing in 1866. When Florida joined the other states of the Deep South in secession, quick action by federal forces in Key West kept it under Union control, and despite the secessionist sentiments of most white Southerners there it would remain so for the entire war, becoming an important base in enforcing the U.S. government’s naval blockade of the Confederacy.

Not surprisingly, Key West was home to a significant slave population at the start of the Civil War, if smaller percentage-wise than most of the Lower South. About 435 of the town’s 2800 people were slaves in 1860. There also were over 150 free people of color there, accounting for bulk of Florida’s free black population on the eve of the Civil War. Being under Union control from the start, slavery in Key West was under assault earlier than most places in the Deep South. Although federal forces did little to enforce 1861’s Confiscation Act against disloyal slaveholders, they ended up employing many of the town’s slaves, which as elsewhere served to undermine the peculiar institution. The New York Times correspondent in Key West reported on September 2, 1862:

Slavery is now here on our island being brought to the test of the late order of the President, and the Quartermaster’s department are employing such negroes as are needed in that department as laborers, nurses for the sick, and for all or any purpose of labor. Those taken who are claimed by disloyal masters are delighted with the change, and others of the same class who are not thus employed are leaving their masters, and seeking labor or employment on their own account. A custom long in vogue here has prepared the negro for this, as they have been allowed to hire their own time, and make what they could, paying to master a portion of their earnings. This latter obligation the darkey proposes to ignore for the future, and applications have been made to the military commandant to have punished such negroes as refuse to pay over their wages or to work for their masters, which have been invariably refused, on the ground that the soldiers of our army are not to be used to compel the rendering of unrequited labor, thus leaving the slaveholder dependent on moral suasion to sustain the old relationship. How far this will be successful in keeping Sambo to the line of duty which exacts all his labor for master’s benefit, whilst Sambo is merely receiving what will keep him in condition to continue the arrangement, is one phase of the question now about to be solved. There are many negroes employed here on our Government works and otherwise, who were purchased simply for the investment of capital by private individuals, adding negro after negro out of the proceeds of such labor. This, although done by men who are classed among good Christians, is yet one of the harsh features of Slavery, and stamps the operator with a character for unscrupulousness even among slaveowners. The value of slave property is materially affected by the existing state of things, and an able negro man of middle age was a few days since offered for sale at $200, without meeting a purchaser. This certainly bears with much hardship upon certain families dependent upon the wages and sale of their negroes for their support and the education of their children. Yet it is somewhat difficult to realize that all the wealth of the island does not still remain with us, or that there is any diminution of the power to do or accomplish. The negro is no more unwilling to labor, when the proceeds are expected to enter his own exchequer, than when he knows they will go into master’s. The State Legislature of Florida passed an act in the Winter of 1860, providing for the exile or enslavement of all free negroes within its borders. As there are many of that class of laborers here, there was consequent perturbation among them for a short time under the last of secession rule, until the puny efforts to display the rebel flag became hushed like the assassin’s retreat, and the glorious Stars and Stripes were given to the breeze by a force to maintain them. Then these people, reassured at once, became quieted, and now remain as they have been for years, an orderly, industrious, law-abiding and most useful class, many of whom are carpenters, masons, or seamstresses of respectable abilities.

This letter, of course, was written before Abraham Lincoln announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. When the final draft of this document went into effect on January 1, 1863, Key West was not one of the areas of the Union-occupied South exempted. So its slaves officially went free, a fact they naturally celebrated, although not until the end of the month. The Times correspondent reported on February 4, 1863:

The 30th of January was made memorable to the negro population of the island, by a grand effort to celebrate their advent to freedom. A procession was formed, and marched through the principal streets, cheering at such houses as they considered friendly. They may claim to have conducted themselves with order and propriety, and that no unpleasant incident occurred, except that a lady, believing that negroes should not be marching through the streets with their best clothes on, even on such an occasion, dashed a pitcher of water upon them from an upper piazza, as they were passing. In the afternoon, at 3 o’clock, they assembled at the Barracoon, and were joined by a large number of naval and military officers and citizens, in discussing the good things which were bountifully furnished. Speeches and toasts were delivered.

So, unsurprisingly, the slaves of Key West were glad to be free, even if not all the town’s white residents accepted that fact with equanimity. They also chose to celebrate the event in their own way and on their own schedule, waiting for nearly a month to make a demonstration of their new status. Such would be nature of most ex-slaves’ celebrations before and after the one in Key West. If now former slaves had a celebration it happened around the time they became free, and in a manner of their own choosing. So despite the direct connection with the Emancipation Proclamation of the liberation of slaves in Key West, Florida, African Americans there did not look to a central authority to select when or how to celebrate the occasion. This decentralized, ad hoc manner of remembering freedom for the slaves would remain true after the Civil War and up to the present, which is fitting given the incremental often informal fashion in which freedom came in practice.

Sources: 1); 2)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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1 Response to Freedom Comes to Key West

  1. Robyn says:

    What an interesting piece of history that I certainly would not have associated with Key West.

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