Florida Keys

Human graves may be under the beach. The dogs on top will have to play elsewhere

Dogs play at the county dog park reserved for small dogs.
Dogs play at the county dog park reserved for small dogs.

Within the next two weeks, Monroe County will relocate its park reserved for small dogs across from Higgs Beach inside the next-door park built for large dogs out of respect for what some county officials call “possible” human graves beneath the top soil.

In 2010, during the master planning process to redevelop Higgs Beach, ground-penetrating radar mapping was done to search for graves that may still exist in the area.

Found beneath the small dog park were anomalies and “voids,” presumed to be caskets or graves, “but it’s not known with certainty if they are,” said county spokeswoman Cammy Clark, in a statement onTuesday.

However, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which curates the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, says there is no doubt at least 100 graves were found during the 2010 search.

“The county has always wanted to be respectful of any possible graves beneath the park by creating contemplative green space in our redesign,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers. “While we may never know with certainty whether graves remain in this area — or if they are graves, whose graves they are — we are taking this step to move the small dog park out of respect. And, we will continue to proceed with respect as the redevelopment moves forward.”

“There are some unmarked graves outside of the dog parks, completely,” Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society posted on his Facebook page last week. “There are two inside the Big Dog Park, where it meets the Little Dog Park. But the vast majority are within the Little Dog Park. No one is suggesting the area be closed; it just needs to have a more respectful designation.”

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The county released this map of the dog park plans. Contributed

Inside the big dog park, which measures about 51,000 square feet and is shaped like an L, the county will carve out about 12,000 square feet to create a new small dog park with a new gate along Atlantic Boulevard.

The water supply will be relocated for the new small dog park, Clark said.

As the plan to relocate Atlantic Boulevard moves forward as part of the Higgs Beach Redevelopment Master Plan, additional changes to the dog parks will be made to accommodate construction, Clark said.

According to records kept by the U.S. Marshal, in 1860 some 1,400 African men, women and children were rescued from slave ships. Most of the refugees were returned to Africa but 295 died in Key West, buried in unmarked graves along the island’s southern shore.

In 2002, after research revealed the cemetery was in the Higgs Beach area, the Key West African Memorial Committee and the Old Island Restoration Foundation unveiled a state of Florida historic plaque at the beach to tell the refugees’ story.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen