Florida Keys

This team unravels mysteries of the slave trade. And it just uncovered a shipwreck in the Keys

Rebecca Hunter and Ayeta Heatley work together to measure the position of an artifact in relation to the reference baseline on Molasses Reef off Key Largo on Friday, June 9, 2018.
Rebecca Hunter and Ayeta Heatley work together to measure the position of an artifact in relation to the reference baseline on Molasses Reef off Key Largo on Friday, June 9, 2018.

U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Frank Moody was killed when his P-39 Aircobra crashed into Lake Huron on April 11, 1944, during combat training.

The Michigan terrain mimicked that of the European theater, where Moody was preparing to be sent during the bloody final 11 months of World War II.

Seventy years later to the day, local divers found the wreck of the plane in about 30 feet of water. A year later, a group of divers with a nonprofit underwater archaeological group, Diving With a Purpose, conducted an exhibition on the site and confirmed the aircraft was flown by Moody, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit of fighter pilots assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardier Group.

"One of the most telling features we found was the instrument panel," said Erik Denson, a board director and lead dive instructor Diving With a Purpose. "It had the radio call number 221226. It was a smoking gun if you will. Each call number is unique, so we knew that was his airplane."

For Denson, who is a NASA engineer by trade, the Tuskegee Airmen expedition, which also discovered the wreckage of pilot Nathaniel Rayburgh's plane, exemplifies the crucial role maritime archaeology plays in preserving the nation's history, even when it is difficult to discuss.

"The one thing why we think this is important is because they are true American heroes. They fought for what they believed," Denson said. "They gave their lives for their country at a time when the country didn't believe in them. We think it's important to tell their story and have it live forever."

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Diving With a Purpose started with the focus of studying shipwrecks connected with the global slave trade, but since being founded in 2005, the group has earned a solid reputation for its ability to document shipwrecks from all eras of U.S. history.

That's why when Hurricane Irma exposed a 184-foot section of what is believed by government researchers to be the wreck of the Slobodna, an Austrian ship that sank off Key Largo in 1887 hauling cotton from Louisiana to Estonia, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, part of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asked Diving With a Purpose to organize an expedition to map the debris field on Molasses Reef.

"I'm paid to be here, they're not," said Brenda Altmeier, maritime historical coordinator with the Sanctuary. "They come here because they want to be here, and they provide all this valuable information in the end."

For seven days this month, volunteers with Diving With a Purpose worked about 10 hours daily surveying and mapping the newly found wreckage. Through a colorful cloud of yellowtail snapper, chubs, scrawled filefish, barracudas, nurse sharks and tarpon, around 30 volunteer divers with backgrounds including archaeology, IT and engineering struggled against the current and curious sealife to measure debris fields and sketch detailed drawings of what they observed.

"We were actually measuring an artifact with a very possessive fish," Silvana Kreines, 24, a maritime archaeologist living in St. Augustine, said back on board the Horizon Dive Adventures boat that ferried the group to the expedition. "Whenever we'd get too close to it, he'd come out and bite our hand."

Philip Obgonna, Kamau Sadiki and Kramer Wimberley, discuss details of their dive before descending on what government researchers believe to be recently uncovered portions of the Slobdona ship wreck on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, on Friday, June 9, 2018. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

The end product of the group's field work and countless hours back at the Florida Bay Interagency Science Center in Key Largo translating the data the divers collected became a site map of the wreck.

"And that document becomes the official road map or legal document for monitoring it on a long-term basis for NOAA," said Jay Haigler, a Diving With a Purpose board director and lead instructor. "It becomes a very important tool for preservation."

Wrecks in the Keys are typically not intact because of frequent hurricane and strong currents. The Slobdona is no exception. One of the most continuous pieces of the wreck resembles a railroad track, with a wrought iron frame connected by wooden planks. In other places nearby, iron is strewn about the ocean floor, some of it stretching out from underneath massive pieces of coral.

"First we survey it and see what's going on," Haigler said. "We see the limits of where the wreck is. We establish the boundaries of the debris field on the ocean floor. Then we lay a baseline, which simply is a tape measure that has two iron stakes, we call them datum points, and we put them at either end of the end points of the shipwreck, and then equidistant in the middle."

"The next thing we do is assign buddy teams to each section of the baseline, establish the right side and the left side, and their job is to identify objects of interest," Haigler said.

Ayana Flewellen and Melanie Casner study a map of what government researchers believe to be an 1887 shipwreck on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Friday, June 9, 2018. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

Dwayne Johnson, 49, came down to work on the Slobdona site from the Baltimore area. He's has been diving for nine years and became interested in scuba, "when I was 10 years old watching Jacques Cousteau on TV."

Johnson, who works in information technology, said the first thing the divers do when they reach the wreck site is a freehand sketch.

"Then, you actually do a measurement of the artifact, and once you do that, you then pick, depending on the size, one to three points, and if it's a circular object, pick one point in the center radius," Johnson said. Their work is then taken to a bigger map of the wreckage site at the Florida Bay Interagency Science Center.

Diving With a Purpose grew from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, founded in 1991 by Dr. Albert Jose Jones and Rick Powell, the first and only African American inducted into the International Diving Hall of Fame. It also comes to the Keys three times a year to plant corals with the Coral Restoration Foundation, said Kamau Sadiki, president of NABS.

"Since 2005, more than 300 people have been a part of our field school, we've logged more than 15,000 volunteer hours and we've documented 18 wrecks," Sadiki said.

A dive team examines fragments of the sunken vessel’s iron framing on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Friday, June 9, 2018. Matthew Lawrence/NOAA/OMNS

While maintaining its focus on ships involved in the slave trade, Diving With a Purpose also aims to help educate local communities about their own "maritime cultural heritage, so they can appreciate the story around these cultural maritime resources," Sadiki said, adding that sometimes the group's primary mission isn't well received.

"We get a lot of pushback sometimes with the restoration," Sadiki said. "Sometimes people don't want to remember."

Ayana Flewellen, who received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, became involved with Diving With a Purpose through Haigler and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Slave Wrecks Project, with which she took part in an expedition in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"The Slave Wrecks Project wants to strategically train black terrestrial archaeologists to do maritime work, so we're part of that network," Flewellen said.

Taking part in the Slobdona expedition was a rewarding experience culturally, professionally and personally, Flewellen said.

"I love this project," she said. "This is one of the only times I get to spend on a boat full of predominantly people of color, predominantly black folk doing this type of work, and it's very fulfilling."

Follow David Goodhue on Twitter at @DavidGoodhue.