Miami-Dade County

Local artist helps preserve memory of the infamous Middle Passage

Every year on Aug. 23, Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, his family, friends and others from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties take a pilgrimage to Key West, marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.

Designated by the United Nations and UNESCO, (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the day focuses world attention on the important issue of slavery. This event is held in Key West at the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach.

In 2002, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsurra, said: “By its decision to proclaim 23 August each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, UNESCO sought to pay tribute to the tireless struggle of the slaves for their freedom. The uprising that took place on the island of Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) during the night of 22 to 23 August 1791 shook the slave system radically and irreversibly, and provided the impetus for the process which would eventually lead to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.”

The proclamation was a rallying cry for those interested in the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences. Gene Tinnie joined several others in organizing South Florida’s annual event. They selected Key West as the location, to include recognition of the graves of 295 Africans who died in 1860 after being freed by the U.S. Navy from three American-owned slave ships. Captured near the Cuban coast and brought to Key West they died from illnesses resulting from the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships and were buried in unmarked graves. The cemetery ‘s importance was recognized in 2012 when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a nationally significant archaeological site. Gene Tinnie designed most of the artwork that was used in developing the memorial at the cemetery.

Remembering the past by connecting world history events of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to the present is the role assumed with authority by Tinnie, a sculptor, author, educator, graphic artist, adjunct professor, historic preservationist and community activist. New York-born, Tinnie’s ancestry is Jamaican and Guyanese. With a Fulbright grant, he earned a master’s degree in foreign languages, linguistics and literature in France. His enduring interest in 18th, 19th and 20th century black history led him to relocate to Miami in 1974.

Gene Tinnie later married Wallis Hamm, originally from West Palm Beach. They travel throughout Florida collecting data and lectures on Maroons, Seminole Indians, and the Atlantic slave trade, particularly the Middle Passage. A former college professor Wallis Tinnie is the longtime Officer of Protocol for the City of Miami. They have two daughters.

For more than forty years Gene Tinnie has studied the nature of slavery and particularly slave ships. He is co-director of the Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Slave Ship Replica Project and contributed to the Journal of African American History’s special issue commemorating the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by the United States. His commentaries appear in state publications including the Florida History Quarterly; FlaVour, Black Lifestyle magazine; and Islas Bilingual Afro-Cuban Journal.

Gene Tinnie’s work on behalf of the freedom struggle in South Africa earned him the African name Dinizulu in recognition of the great Zulu kings.

By trade, Tinnie is an accomplished visual artist who produces paintings, sculptures and monument designs that interpret the history he studies. The Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, through it’s Art in Public Places Program commissioned Tinnie to design the Riichmond Heights monument in tribute to Frank C. Martin, the community’s founder. and pioneers. Established in 1949, Richmond Heights is one of the country’s first planned black communities for World War II veterans.

In May 2014, at Richmond Heights’ 65th anniversary and monument dedication, Michael Spring, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs said, “this impressive installation is designed by one of Miami’s most thoughtful artists with the idea of honoring and celebrating the pioneers of Richmond Heights and the leadership of Commissioner Dennis Moss ... in a significant and powerful way.”

Gene Tinnie is no stranger to community involvement. He serves a number of boards including chair of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, charged with the restoration and operation of Miami’s fondly remembered former “Colored Beach” during the era of segregation; the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami; the New Birth Corporation in Daytona Beach, keepers of the historic home and legacy of theologian Howard Thurman; the Palm Beach County-based Florida Black Historical Research Project Inc., which gathers and preserves Seminole Maroon heritage; and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, home to the Henrietta Marie slave ship artifacts and touring exhibition.

Tinnie works tirelessly to bring consciousness to the community regarding the African Cemetery in Key West and the United Nation’s efforts on behalf Human Rights. He is influenced by 20th century black thinkers including Vincent Harding, John Henrik Clarke, John Hope Franklin, Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman and Jefferson P. Rogers.

UNESCO is a leader in fostering the understanding and recognition of the slave trade. Since the establishment of the Slave Route project in 1994, this agency works diligently to break the silence on the slave trade and slavery.