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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History

Chapter 8 Excerpt

Sandy Cornish was a free black man in Antebellum Florida. There are no holidays for Sandy. There are no streets named after him in his honor, brass monuments to testify of his importance, or stamps with his face on it. Yet Sandy was a representation of success when success was impossible. Of freedom when freedom was unattainable. Of respect when his people were mostly kept degraded and marginalized in his community. A Northern visitor in Key West described Sandy as “the strongest man on the island, the richest of the negroes, the best farmer here, and with a history as romantic as that of any Indian whom song and story have combined to make famous.” 1 In a time when his people were mostly deprived of any form of property, Sandy cultivated the best farm in Key West. A white Key Westerner said that Sandy had “the best fruit grove and garden on the island.” 2 Yet his achievements were not to be solely enjoyed as he strived to bring the rest of his community up with him. The same resident pointed this out, “To "Sandy" is due largely the establishment of the African Methodist church, where he frequently preached, in a voice that could be heard for blocks.” 3 A visitor to Sandy’s home claimed that he advanced 1,500 dollars for the building of the church. 4 The African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida was a means of political organization and religious independence for blacks following the war. The AME Church strongly encouraged its largely black membership to create homesteads for themselves and achieve success independent from their former masters. As former slaves in Florida were forced back into sharecropping out of necessity, they exhaustingly endeavored to take up their own lands in the terrible acres offered in the Homestead Act. Sandy’s example gave inspiration to others who endlessly endeavored to labor independent of whites. By all means, Sandy should have been enslaved for many years, freed following the Civil War, forced to labor on a plot of land under a sharecropping contract with his former master, and caught in an endless cycle of debt from which there was little escape. But his story is not meant to be a patronizing example offered by some pretentious white man with the underlying implication that most black nowadays are lazy for lacking prosperity while this black man achieved success against every single obstacle imaginable. Sandy was a rare example and his foremost fight was to achieve his freedom and independence from whites. The white supremacist system at that time cannot claim credit for Sandy’s prosperity anymore than the white supremacist system now could shirk the blame for mass black impoverishment. Plus Sandy’s strenuous efforts to build up his own land were based on the widely known fact among blacks at the time that they would never be free as long as they labored under whites.

There are two competing narratives regarding Sandy’s early history. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase and Whitelaw Reid visited Sandy in their travels through the island and both gave a brief synopsis of his history. Chase claimed that Sandy had bought himself out of slavery at Tallahassee for three thousand dollars. After paying the money, he was sold nonetheless. Clearly aware that his mutilation and physical impairment would lessen his value on the slave market, Sandy proceeded to “cut himself desperately fingers, muscles above ancle, side,” and declared that he would slice open his abdomen if made a slave again. 5 It now appears that the whites conceded to free Sandy under the guardianship system that free blacks were legally forced to adopt at the time. His money that he earned was held by a Key West slaveholder John B. Baldwin, “with understanding that he was free and owner of his gettings.” 6 It can only be assumed that he became completely independent from any white guardian during the Civil War as Chase’s account failed to mention whether or not he still had a guardian in place. Chase described Sandy and his plantation, “farm or orchard or garden of 19 acres…has all sorts of trees & fruits-is man of property.” 7 Reid’s narrative of Sandy’s early history shared similar aspects but was far more detailed. He claimed that Sandy was native of Maryland rather than Florida. He had purchased himself for precisely 3,200 dollars but had actually earned and paid over the required money for manumission. After achieving his freedom, he emigrated down to Florida. He found employment on the railroad and began accumulating a decent amount of money until his freedom became compromised. His house burned down along with his freedom papers inside. Shortly after, a group of white slave raiders made an attempt to seize him, sell him in the New Orleans market, and pocket the proceeds. Reid relays what happened next:

He frustrated their attempt by whipping the whole party of six; then hearing that they were to be re-enforced and were to try it again, he deliberately proceeded to the public square, accompanied by his wife, cut the muscles of his ankle joint, plunged a knife into the hip joint on the other side, and then, sinking down on a wheel-barrow, finished the work by chopping off with a hatchet the fingers of his left hand! Meanwhile, an awe-struck crowd of white men gathered around, but made no attempt at interference. Finally, brandishing the bloody knife, Sandie shouted to the crowd that if they persisted in their effort to sell a free man into slavery after he had once, at an extortionate price, bought himself out of it, his right arm was yet strong, and he had one blow reserved, after which they were welcome to sell him for whatever he would bring.” 8         

            Reid had called Sandy’s farm the “main feature” of Key West. Nothing testified more to Sandy’s ingenuity than the fact that most islanders had believed that it was impossible to cultivate the island’s stony ground until he had come along and done so. Reid vividly described his plantation:

Ripe sapadillos hung from the trees; and a particularly large "sour-sop" was pointed out as specially intended for our dinner. He had a little patch of tobacco; green cocoanuts rested at the tops of the palm-like stems, and tamarinds were abundant; the African cayenne pepper berry was hanging on little bushes, and one or two of the party, who had been promiscuously experimenting on Sandie's fruit, came to grief when they reached it, and were heard complaining that their "mouths were on fire." Plucking two or three berries of another kind, Sandie handed them to the Chief Justice. "Take dem home and plant 'em in your garden, and you'll hab you own coffee afta while." "But coffee won't grow, Sandie, where I live." "Don't know bout dat, sah. Dat's just what dey told me heah; but you see it does. I didn't know no reason why it shouldn't, and so I try. Now, you just try, too!" 9

In a brief synopsis, Sandy had earned the money to pay for manumission – a difficult task for any slave who was actually permitted to do so. After doing so, his freedom was compromised in one way or another – either from his former master or from a thieving band of slave raiders. In order to ensure the whites he would be worthless as human “property,” he desperately mutilated himself to maintain his freedom. From there, he managed to accumulate a decent amount of money and build a plantation from mostly infertile soil with the barest means of doing so. He created the most successful farm on the island of Key West and completely achieved his freedom by inserting his independence from whites. Through the money he accumulated, he supported the establishment of an AME Church in 1865 as his newly freed counterparts were attempting to insert their religious independence. Sandy’s example is one that can live on to this day as inspiration for blacks who are still struggling to achieve independence and freedom in a white dominated society. Although it’s doubtful that any plaques will ever be awarded in commemoration of his memory or parks named after him, at the very least anybody who reads this can now appreciate his legacy and implications of his extraordinary life.

2009 Adam Wasserman

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