Another Side of Key West? Its Rich Black History

Key West’s Bahama Village dates back centuries. Now, initiatives and exhibits are helping spotlight its Black history.

Crest atop gate to Bahama Village, with sailfish and flamingo in profile

Bahamians began to settle in the Florida Keys for fishing and other maritime jobs.

Photo by Travelview/Shutterstock

Silky white-sand beaches, bright cottages, Key lime pie: About four miles long and a mile wide, Key West is distinctive, drawing visitors for both its distance to and from the United States. Though Miami is only a four-hour drive away, the cities are divided less by geographical distance and more by ideology. Key West is a small city in its own world.

Initially the Spanish island of Cayo Hueso, Key West is less than 100 miles from Cuba. The United States took possession of Florida in the early 1820s, and the U.S. Navy raised the American flag over Key West in 1821. Four men began to develop the city, and by the 1830s, Key West was the most affluent in the country. During the Civil War, Key West remained part of the Union even after Florida seceded, thanks to its Naval base. After the war, fishing and other maritime activities kept the city afloat.

Robert Kerstein, a professor of government at the University of Tampa, points to the city’s history as a military town, its rail connections, and the fact that the city fought against large cruise ships coming to port to keep its eclectic vibe.

“Key West is much more laid-back, more unique, more eccentric [than Orlando or Miami]—that’s what they sold to a large extent; that [they were] not a generic tourist destination,” says Kerstein, author of Key West on the Edge.

This, then, is the Key West many people know. But for Clayton Lopez, the Key West city commissioner since 2005, more needs to be done to tell the story of its lesser-known Black history, which, he argues, is a story of America at large. Born and raised in the city’s Bahama Village neighborhood, Lopez—a fourth-generation Key Wester—has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Key West’s history.

“Some of the most important Black history in the United States began or is connected to Key West,” he says.

There is no Key West as a whole without Bahama Village.
Clayton Lopez

Located toward the southwest end of Key West, the historic neighborhood of Bahama Village spans 16 blocks between Louisa and Southard streets. An arched entrance at Petronia Street serves as a signposted entry to the neighborhood. During Lopez’s childhood, Bahama Village was a neighborhood where everyone knew one another.

Bahamians began to settle in on Key West in the 1800s, primarily for fishing and other maritime jobs like boat builders and spongers. Most immigrants chose to live close to the waterfront (giving Bahama Village its name) and brought with them plants and seeds from the island, contributing to much of the characteristic Key West flora today. In 1860, the U.S. Navy seized three illegal American-owned ships containing enslaved Africans near Cuba and processed the people in Key West, where residents built shelter and made clothes for them. (Nearly 300 people are buried at the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.) While historic records point to Key West residents helping the newly freed Africans (as well as Africans who had previously made a home in the region), arbitrary laws—such as noise ordinances—limited the few freedoms they did have.

There is more Black history ingrained throughout Key West: Frederick Douglass attended church in the city, and Black men from Key West signed up to fight for the Union during the Civil War. There were African American leaders like Nelson English (postmaster from 1882 to 1886) and Charles DuPont (sheriff from 1885 to 1893). In more recent decades, Veterans of Foreign Wars Walter R. Mickens Post 6021 and William Weech American Legion Post 168—located in Bahama Village, and both on the National Register of Historic Places—were built in 1951 to serve the more than 10,000 Black military members in the Florida Keys from 1950-1970, and hosted performers such as Otis Redding.

Bahama Village today has mostly Black-owned businesses dotting the neighborhood’s main street and low-slung 19th-century Bahamian-style homes painted pastel red, blue, purple, turquoise, and yellow, and often topped with widow’s walks—railed viewing platforms where women were said to watch for their spouses’ return from sea.

“There is no Key West as a whole without Bahama Village,” Lopez says.

But like many predominantly Black neighborhoods nationwide, Bahama Village—the southernmost Black neighborhood in the continental United States—is a neighborhood in flux: unspared from issues such as gentrification.

Today, Bahama Village is 37 percent Black, down from 64 percent in 1990. The average home in Bahama Village is valued at nearly $1 million, according to a Zillow report, up nearly 3 percent over the past year, while the median income in the neighborhood is around $36,000 annually.

Still, there is hope for the protection and preservation of Bahama Village. New housing is planned—the Navy donated 3.2 acres to build affordable housing in the neighborhood—and a community center and gym (named after Frederick Douglass) now sits in the neighborhood. Events such as the annual Goombay Festival celebrate a type of Bahamian music, and in recent years, the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House has worked to address what it calls a “serious omission”: In partnership with Monroe County Public Libraries and the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, the museum is spotlighting the Black community’s contributions to the island’s culture through documents and works of art.

Local businesses are also committed to Black Key West’s future. Visitors can stop by One Love Food Truck for a Jamaican dinner of curry chicken, coconut rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains, enjoy traditional Bahamian meals at Island Boyz Seafood Key West, or get a line-up at Moore Than Fades Barbershop. Despite the challenges, Bahama Village residents say their history is rich and undying.

“Some of us are so resolute in about staying here and making sure our story is told,” Lopez tells me. “I’ve developed somewhat of a philosophy since being in office that I’m not going to deny your story or your contribution [to Key West]. But I want to make sure that you include mine as well.”

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for Afar.
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