Congresswoman honors Florida’s oldest black church

Past, present, future

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell on Jan. 18 presents Rev. Rochelle Pearson with the proclamation for Key West’s Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church. CONTRIBUTED Cornish Memorial

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whose district includes the Florida Keys, recently honored Key West’s Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church on Whitehead Street with a Congressional Recognition for the church’s 155th anniversary.

Named for and founded by freed slave Sandy Cornish, the church’s wooden rafters are said to have been built from the timbers of slave ships.

“The church serves as a landmark in Key West and as a historical site,” the recognition proclamation states. “Its slave ship rafters and beautiful windows represent an important but painful time in our history that we must never forget. The front stained-glass window is said to be the eye of God overlooking the city of Key West.”

In reading the proclamation, Mucarsel-Powell told her colleagues in the House, “I rise today to commemorate the life of Sandy Cornish as well as the Cornish A.M.E. Zion Church and its 155 years of service to our community and constituents of Key West.”

Photo taken by the Property Appraiser’s office c1965; 704 Whitehead St.; built 1894; Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church;Tract 3, Sqr 1, Lot 19

The church has served in the past as part of Frederick Douglass School and has provided shelter to residents during hurricanes.  

Sandy Cornish had been a slave in Maryland before the Civil War, but eventually was able to pay $1,500 for his freedom and another $1,500 for that of his wife, Lillah. 

The free black couple then embarked on a journey to Key West, but stopped first in Louisiana, where their freedom papers were destroyed in a fire and slave traders started hunting Cornish to sell him back into slavery.

“Sandy Cornish became famous because he maimed himself in order to avoid being returned to a life of slavery,” said Rev. Rochelle Pearson, the first female pastor of Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church, which Cornish founded at 702 Whitehead St. in Key West 155 years ago.

“He stood in the middle of a town square and cut ligaments in his leg and cut off one of his thumbs to make himself less useful to slave owners,” Pearson said, adding that the couple eventually found their way to Key West.

“Cornish wasn’t an ordained preacher, but he would orate, or read the scriptures to his congregation, and bring in other ministers to preach, including Frederick Douglass,” said Pearson.

Cornish was able to buy some farmland in Key West and became the richest black man in Key West by selling his produce to both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, said Pearson.

For more information, find the Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church on Facebook or call 305-294-2350.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, center, in red and black, joined representatives of the church and the city on Jan. 18 to honor Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church for its 155th anniversary. Key West Mayor Teri Johnston is on the far right. ARIDA WRIGHT/Contributed

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.