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Key West Holds Its First 'Juneteenth Carnival,' Celebrating Black Freedom And Caribbean Cultures

Key West Carnival organizer Veronica Guy Stafford is shown with a Carnival costume.
Nancy Klingener
Key West Carnival organizer Veronica Guy Stafford is from Trinidad, where Carnival is known for its costumes and parades, but says Key West's version will draw on many island cultures.

Key West has a new party on its calendar — and the first edition takes place this weekend, June 18 and 19.

"It's a Juneteenth Carnival," said Veronica Guy Stafford, who is organizing the event. "It's one leg of the four legs of what we hope to do in Key West."

Stafford said she hopes to add Carnival events in the fall around Goombay Celebration — which kicks off the annual Fantasy Fest — on Boxing Day after Christmas and around St. Patrick's Day.

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This event starts Friday evening with a Juneteenth ceremony at the African Cemetery in Key West. That's where almost 300 people are buried. They were on three slave ships bound for Cuba, which were seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860.

At that time, while slavery was still legal in the U.S., the slave trade was not. The Africans on board were brought to Key West and most of them, eventually returned to Africa, if not their actual homes. But 295 people died of disease while they were on the island.

On Saturday, the Carnival part of the event take off with an all-day concert at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater. It will include "the music, the truck, the jouvet, the water, the mud, the colors, and the fancy costumes, the stage performances and, more than anything, the food of the people of the Caribbean," Stafford said.

Stafford is from Trinidad — but says the Key West event will call on the island's Bahamian roots as well as other connections.

"We've broadened it into not just a Trinidad carnival experience, but the Caribbean experience because it's America's closest neighbor and we don't really celebrate the Caribbean culture here in Key West," she said.