Faith and freedom – City’s oldest black church turns 155 - A large white building - Cornish Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church
Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church, 702 Whitehead St., is the oldest black church in the state of Florida and will celebrate its 155th anniversary with a special service on Sunday, Nov. 17. Contributed / Monroe County Public Library

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

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 were hunting Cornish.

“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 this month.

“He 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 Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, said Pearson, who’s been working with her congregation to organize a 155th anniversary service on Sunday, Nov. 17. 

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

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