Relics of a Fading Community
Key West Museum of Art & History | Bryan Gallery
January 13 - May 21, 2023 (now extended)
Through education, religious institutions, businesses, food, music, and voluntary associations, Key West’s Black community created ways to serve and strengthen their village and the island. Bahama Village, in the westernmost portion of the city, was a neighborhood comprised of Black Bahamians and Black Cubans, Chinese, and other groups of color. In this exhibition, their history and stories will be woven together through various events that shaped the Black and Indigenous cultures of Key West.
In the early 1800s and 1900s, the Black and Indigenous community of Key West was skilled and hardworking. Many early settlers migrated to the island from St. Augustine, the Bahamas, and Cuba, and with them they brought their skills, education, and culture. These settlers were great contributors to the island’s development. This included African slaves that were imported by slaveholders to assist in the expansion of the island.
Many male members of the Bahamian and Cuban community were entrepreneurs, skilled carpenters, masons, seafarers, and shipbuilders who constructed several homes, schools, and churches. Other professions included teachers, fishermen, barbers, restaurant owners, and ship pilots who worked in the harbor. The women were often mothers, teachers, seamstresses, practical nurses, midwives, housewives, and community supporters. Together they created a self-sustaining village which benefited the residents in many ways.
Free Blacks relocating to Key West were some of the first to become educated in America. They believed strongly in education which began at home and in church basements, until the establishment of the segregated Frederick Douglass School in 1871. Douglass School, located in Bahama Village, was the only Black school on the island for children in grades one through twelve. It maintained a reputation for its exceptional educators and for providing a superb education.
At the heart of Bahama Village was Petronia Street which was known then as the Black economic business and entertainment hub. A mixture of Black owned and operated businesses lined the corridor including the famous Blue Heaven Pool Hall, Josepha and Shorty’s Conch Shop, Floyd’s Barber Shop, Eaker’s Package Store, Sam and Florence’s Barbecue Stand, Bop Brown’s Jazzy Spot, Mingo’s Shoe Shine, and Johnson’s Grocery Store.
Key West’s Black community was developed around, and enmeshed in, a culture that served as a ‘village’. While components of this exhibition include religion, education, music, and social activities, this only lays the first stone. The narrative of Bahama Village goes much deeper. It is the wider community’s responsibility to emphasize the importance of this thriving, active ‘organism’ that nurtured and cultivated its citizens to serve as effective contributors to the enhancement of Key West.
Funding for this program was provided through a grant from Florida Humanities with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This project is sponsored in part by the Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture and the State of Florida, with additional support provided by The Helmerich Trust. We also thank and acknowledge the contributions of the Frederick Douglass School Black Educators Memorial Project for their assistance in making this exhibition possible.