A statue of Sandy Cornish in Mallory Square in Key West, Florida (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A statue of Sandy Cornish in Mallory Square in Key West, Florida (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For 400 years, Africans were snatched from their homes and deported into foreign environments in the Americas where they were put to work in mines and plantations. An idea that’s rarely talked about is reparations for slavery that some form of compensatory payment be made to descendants of Africans who had been enslaved in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

A lifetime of bondage awaited those who survived the trip. Descendants of slaves are remiss if they don’t uniformly move to correct this horrendous “vitiation.”

Some type of compensation should be provided to descendants of enslaved people in the United States, in consideration of the coerced and uncompensated labor their ancestors performed over centuries. This generation of blacks needs to take note and a lesson from an ex-slave named Sandy Cornish.

Sandy Cornish lived from 1793 to 1869. An African-American famer, businessman and civic leader in Key West, Florida, Cornish was a former slave who had purchased his freedom and publicly maimed himself to prevent being returned to slavery. While gruesome in some respects, Cornish is a remarkable story of what a man would go through to preserve his freedom.

Born a slave in Maryland in 1793, Cornish was hired out in 1839 by his master to a railroad-building project in Port Leon in Florida’s panhandle. After nine years of work at $600 a year, he was able to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife Lillah, but the papers showing him to be free were destroyed in a fire.

Lacking proof of his emancipation, Cornish was seized by slave traders, but managed to break free. The next day he gathered a crowd of onlookers in the square of Port Leon. He loudly proclaimed that, having purchased his freedom once, he would not return to slavery under any circumstances.   Then he deliberately maimed himself, stabbing himself in the leg, slashing the muscles of one ankle, and cutting off a finger of his left hand, which he proceeded to sew back on. These injuries made him worthless as a slave and thus immune to recapture.

The spectacle took hours. In the end, friends took him home in a wheelbarrow, and he eventually recovered his health.

“Uncle Sandy” Cornish has given this generation of blacks new discussions and ways to reflect on negative net worth. “Worthless” is “having no real value or use” often “deserving of contempt.” Black individuals, organization and churches should take a look at reparations from Cornish’s perspective.

From that perspective, blacks are their most compliant since being in America. Why is it that blacks across the political spectrum, Democrat or Republican, accept second-class citizenship?

Cornish’s antics should be immortalized.  After slave catchers seized him to be sold in New Orleans, he broke free and accompanied by his wife put on the scene in Port Leon. Having rendered himself useless as a slave, Cornish then threatened to disembowel himself if taken to New Orleans.  After rendering himself “worthless” to slavers, Cornish actually lived and prospered.

About 1850, he and wife bought a farm in Key West. In the business of selling vegetables and fruits to local residents, he became one of the town’s richest people, reigning as a leader of the local black community and the founder of the Cornish Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Cornish Memorial Cornish AME Zion Church and chapel. He died in 1869 at the age of 76.

The legend of Sandy Cornish points out factors blacks need to invoke about slavery and America. Overcoming the condition is not enough. To date, blacks have squandered our influence and numbers in the “mainstream” political process. This generation of African-Americans should make reparations a legislative and legal priority.

Talk about Cornish among friends and family.  Talk about slavery and reparations at dinner tables, clubs and churches and elsewhere.  There is a continuing legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation that blacks have to get past to actively use all their resources and opportunities to present a coherent agenda on reparations.

William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com.

William Reed

William Reed is President and Chief Executive Officer of Black Press International. He has been a Media Entrepreneur for over two decades. A well-trained marketing and communications professional, Reed...

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