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While Florida was part of the Confederacy, Key West was not and freed its slaves early

Juneteenth: Key West's unique role in how slaves were freed there before end of Civil War
Juneteenth: Key West's unique role in how slaves were freed there before end of Civil War 03:28

MIAMI - During the Civil War, Florida was part of the Confederate States of America. However, Key West was not under the control of the Confederacy and the city's 450 slaves were freed before the end of the war. It's the often untold story of Key West's connection to Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

"The whole emancipation saga here in Key West. I don't think there is anything else like it. It is a unique tale and one that everybody needs to know," said Corey Malcom, lead historian at the Florida Keys History Center.

"Despite the fact that the State of Florida had succeeded, Key West remained under Union control," said historian Gene Tinney.

The key to this story comes with a look at the Confederacy. There were 13 states in the Confederate States of America, including Florida. Tallahassee was the capital of the Confederate State of Florida. Cattle from the northern and central parts of the state were used to feed rebel troops.

Key West, hundreds of miles to the south and west, was firmly in Union hands. Union troops occupied not only Key West but also the Dry Tortugas to the west in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

"The Keys were crucial for the Union because they guarded the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico," explained Malcom.

The Union's construction of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Fort Zachery Taylor in Key West used, in part, slave labor. Many slaves from Key West were rented out to the U.S. government. The rental agreement with the Union provided steady income to the slaveholders, according to Tinney.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all slaves held in Confederate states be set free. Key West slaves gained their freedom a short 18 days later on January 19th when the official paperwork arrived in the city.

"The enslaved people of Key West were pretty happy," Malcom said.

At the end of January 1863, there was a celebration led by freed slave and community leader Sandy Cornish. Not all Key West residents were enamored, especially the former slave owners and Confederate sympathizers who lost their slave rental income.

Tinny said during the celebration parade, "People were pelted with stones, and dirty water was poured on the heads of some of the people. The flag bearer had the staff broken over his head."

Taking a look at the big picture, a good portion of the Key West's white population was made up of New Englanders and white Bahamians whose attitudes were not supportive of slavery. Historians note that over the years Key West's residents, both Black and white, got along pretty well for one basic reason.

"When you have folks isolated on an island that have to survive together, no matter what their status was on paper, they had to be more understanding and cooperation was going on," Tinney said.

Shortly after the Key West emancipation, Union Army recruiters signed up 126 former slaves and they went on to fight for the Union in South Carolina. 

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