Hundreds of tourists gather each evening to watch the sunset and street performers from the docks at Mallory Square. Very few enter the little sculpture garden on the street behind the Waterfront Playhouse where there are busts of people who have had a significant impact on Key West.
There is a sculpture of Ernest Hemmingway. Most towns commemorate famous residents, politicians and military. But by in large, Key West’s monuments in the garden are to those who had a significant impact on the economy: those who provided jobs.
One is Sandy Cornish who lived from approximately 1793 to 1869. In the late 1840s, he and his wife Lillah bought a farm on Key West and began to supply vegetables and fruit to locals inhabitants. He became a highly successful farmer, and one of Key West’s richest residents. He became a leader of the African-American community and helped establish the Cornish Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church which still stands today.
Recently Twelve Years a Slave has been in movie theaters. It is based on Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography detailing how he, a free black from New York, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery until eventually freed by a friend from Saratoga.I found Sandy Cornish’s story even more compelling. Cornish was born a slave in Maryland. In 1839, he was hired out by his master to work in Florida’s panhandle building a railroad. Using money he earned and with Lillah’s help, he bought his freedom. But after the papers showing he was free were lost in a fire, a band of six slave-catchers seized him to be sold as slave in New Orleans.
Before they could transport him, he broke free and, accompanied by his wife in the public square of Port Leon, Florida, he plunged a knife into his hip, cut the muscles of an ankle joint and used an ax to cut off the fingers of his left hand (no anesthesia, no antiseptics). Having rendered himself useless as a slave, he threatened to disembowel himself if he was taken to New Orleans.
He was left alone. Taken home in a wheelbarrow by black friends, he recovered over a period of about six months. Eventually, he and Lillah made it to Key West.