Historic Marker number 93 is located at 702 Whitehead between Southard and Angela Streets.
This historic site is as much about a free black community leader as it is about the landmark Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church in Key West.
Sandy Cornish founded the Cornish Chapel for the African-American residents of Key West. It is believed that its first meeting was held under a large Spanish lime tree in the 200 block of Hutcherson Lane in 1864.
Sandy Cornish was born into slavery in 1793. By the time he founded the chapel, he had purchased his freedom, acquired land, become a wealthy farmer, and a leading spirit among the black community. For additional information about the life of Sandy Cornish, dial # 509 at the end of this recording.
The church's existence is a culmination of a number of conditions and events that existed in Key West during the Civil War. The 1860 census counted 2,832 people living on the island. What the census did not show was the diversity of the population. It was a port city of considerable importance economically and militarily; a fact that led to extensive diversification of its pool of residents. It was a diverse population with ship wreck survivors, Bahama wreckers, immigrants, fishermen from New England and the Gulf states, businessmen, commercial adventurers, mechanics from the Northern States, and world wanderers from every corner of the globe.
African-Americans comprised slightly less than 20 percent of the 1860s Key West population. The low percentage should not mislead as to the influence of, or living environment enjoyed by, the black community. Given the town's geographic isolation and general lack of available laborers, conditions tended to offer a great deal of flexibility to slaves and the town's 160 free blacks.
The Civil War era and the increased presence of the Federal Government brought prosperity to Key West, permitting local blacks to capitalize on government spending indirectly as well as directly. During the war the U.S. government stationed regiments of the U.S Colored Infantry, along with the Second Regiment USCI, and some men from the Ninety-Ninth Regiments, part of the United States "Corps d' Afrique". The gathering of black soldiers, local slaves, and free men of color, greatly increased Key West's desire for spiritual leadership.
Prior to and during the Civil War, the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) in Hartford, Connecticut was striving to expand the geographic coverage of its ministries. In 1864, the church sent Wilbur Garrison Strong to Key West, the southernmost Union stronghold throughout the war. Reverend Strong is recognized as the first ordained minister in Florida. Under the leadership of Reverend Strong, the Cornish Chapel congregation quickly outgrew the meeting house they started in. Plans for a grand centralized church began in 1885.
The church was built in the form of European cathedrals and was designed to serve as a place of worship, a schoolhouse, and a gathering place of safety. With volunteer labor of the parishioners, stone was quarried from the site for the foundation and ground floor then craftsmen trained by ships carpenters mortised together great timbers with wooden pegs to build the superstructure The church's wood structure and the arched wooden ceiling beams are believed to have been salvaged from sailing ships.
Sandy Cornish was an African-American farmer, businessperson, and civic leader in Key West, Florida. Cornish was born a slave in Maryland in 1793. In 1839, his master hired him out to a railroad-building project in Port Leon in Florida's Panhandle. The position allowed him to earn money for himself, and after nine years of work at $600 a year, he was able to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife Lillah. However, the papers showing him to be free were destroyed in a fire. Lacking proof of his emancipation, he was seized by slave traders, but managed to break free. The next day he gathered a crowd of onlookers in Port Leon. He loudly proclaimed that, having purchased his freedom once, he would not return to slavery under any circumstances. He then deliberately maimed himself, stabbing his leg, slashing the muscles of one ankle, and cutting off a finger of his left hand, which he proceeded to sew back on with a needle and thread. These injuries made him worthless as a slave and thus immune to recapture. Friends took him home in a wheelbarrow, and he eventually recovered his health. Around 1850, he and Lillah bought a farm in Key West, in the area that is now Truman Avenue near Simonton Street. Selling vegetables and fruits to local residents, he became one of the richest people in Key West. He was a leader of the local black community and the founder of the Cornish Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Cornish Memorial AME Zion church and chapel, which still stands at 702 Whitehead Street.