Key West was a magnet for many Bahamians seeking to immigrate to the United States in the late 19th Century.
The Allen family, which would later become the island’s largest Black family, gained a foothold in Key West when three family members relocated to the area from the Tarpum Bay (or Glenelg) settlement of the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera. The immigrants included siblings Mary E. Allen, George W. Allen and James A. Allen.
At the time, there were approximately 25,000 residents of Key West, and about 8,000 of them were Black Bahamians. The Tarpum Bay immigrants largely settled in the area surrounding what is now the Key West City Cemetery. The sponging industry was their economic mainstay, although the Cuban-dominated cigar industry was the primary enterprise in Key West and provided the majority of jobs. Many Black Bahamians were also employed as laborers at the island’s Naval Base.
In the 1890s, Key West was a racially mixed enclave of Black and White Bahamians, Black and White Cubans, Mulattos, and Black and White Americans. Racial tensions were relatively low on the island, compared to the rest of Florida, as evidenced by the surprisingly high number of African-American officials appointed or elected to public office. Key West is said to have sported a thriving community of Black professionals, including doctors, dentists, ministers and merchants.
That is not to say that racism was absent from Key West. In fact, family lore has it that George W. Allen, a prominent white bank president, once offered our Rev. George W. Allen the sum of $2,000 to change his name. It seems that the white George didn’t like the idea of a black man sharing his name.
It was into this complex and often contradictory island society that siblings Mary, George and James settled.
The eldest of William & Addie's offspring, Mary Elizabeth Allen Carey (1873 - 1962) was born September 30, 1873, in Tarpum Bay (then known as Glenelg) on Eleuthera. There is a record of the birth of a mixed race baby girl born to William and Ann* Eliza Allen (formerly Knowles)** in the settlement of Glenelg on Eleuthera in the Bahamian Birth Records of 1873.
She immigrated to Key West at the age of 19 in 1892, and met and married George A. Carey. Their union produced eight living children, including Daisy, George, Miriam, Jeanette, Annie, Eugene, Ruth and Angelina.
Mary became a naturalized citizen in 1904 and made a home for her family near her siblings who had also settled in Key West on Elizabeth Street, then later in a house on Monroe County Lane (also known as Poorhouse Lane).
She continued to care for her family until her death in April of 1962. She was a member of Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church, and her brother, Rev. George W. Allen, presided at her funeral. She was 89 years old, and was survived by 15 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and eight great-great-grandchildren.
Her obituary appeared in the April 26, 1962, edition of the Key West Citizen newspaper.
Rev. George Whitfield Allen (1880 - 1969), who was born October 14, 1880, according to Social Security records, arrived in the U.S. in 1897. He settled in Key West five years after his sister Mary did so. The 1900 Census shows him living with his sister and her husband at age 19, and lists his profession as seaman.
A painter by trade, he met his future wife, Susan Elizabeth Carey, prior to leaving their homeland. When he was settled in Key West, he brought his intended to their new country, married her, and both became naturalized citizens of the United States in 1919, according to the 1920 Census.
Born to their union were ten living children, including George B., William Wilkerson, Joseph Harry, Robert Paul, Helen Elizabeth, Samuel W., Violet Mildred, Leroy Charles, Philip, and Emerson. Several other children were born, but perished.
In 1932, he established Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church and became its founding minister. Of the 40 years he spent in the ministry, he served as the active pastor of Trinity for 33 years. Through his work in the church he became an influential member of the community, and was a member of Union Lodge No. 47 of the Free and Accepted Masons.
At the time of his death on October 31, 1969, he had 31 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and nine great-great-grandchildren.
His obituary appeared in the November 2 and November 6, 1969, editions of the Key West Citizen newspaper.
James Alfred Allen (1877 - 1950) was born December 20, 1877, in Tarpum Bay (known as Glenelg) on Eleuthera. There is a record of the birth of a male child of mixed race born to William and Adeliza* Allen (formerly Knowles)** of the settlement of Glenelg on Eleuthera in the 1877 Bahamian Birth Records.
James came to the United States in 1903 and settled in Key West. He held several positions, including laborer at the Naval Station, a position in a pineapple factory, and later a job at a local printer.
He married Lilla Barnett, and their union produced twelve children, including William, Olive, James, Leola, Annie, Curline, Joseph, John, Alfred, Leila, Ella Mae, and Ruth.
Lilla, who specialized in making homemade candy, was a favorite of local children, as was her glass candy, coconut candy, and benne candy, which is made with sesame seeds.
James passed away July 25, 1950, at the age of 72. Obituaries for those of African and mixed race ancestry were not printed in the local newspaper at that time. However, there is a record of his burial on file at the Monroe County Library in Key West which indicates he was buried in the Key West City Cemetery.
The descendants of the Allens who immigrated to Key West from Tarpum Bay became integral members of the community. Several became business owners and entrepreneurs, including John W. Allen, who owned and operated a general store on Emma Street, as well as a series of apartment complexes until his death in 1995. Robert Paul Allen and his wife Madeline owned and operated several businesses, including a neighborhood grocery on the corner of Thomas and Virginia Streets until he passed away in 1995. Alfred Allen and wife Patricia own and manage residential rental property. Olive Allen Sands owned both a bakery and a general store before her death and was, by all accounts, an accomplished cook.
Other Allens became expert tradesmen. Still others became professionals, including politicians, educators, nurses, and attorneys, as well as other administrators. The Honorable Carmen Turner, great-granddaughter of Rev. George W. Allen, became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Key West City Commission, serving from 1995 until she retired from public office in 2005. Attorney Calvin Allen, grandson of James A. Allen, became well-known for his successful campaign to posthumously restore Florida's first Black county judge to the bench after he was removed in 1889 for marrying an interracial couple.
Several members of the family excelled musically. William W. Allen (son of Rev. George W. Allen) was a member of the famous Welters Coronet Band, which was well known throughout the country, particularly for its funeral march processions. Several Allens also keep the musical tradition of their homeland alive, founding and performing in Junkanoo bands. One such band, the Island Junkanoos, still exists and performs its Caribbean-style music at local restaurants and events. It is comprised entirely of Allen descendants.
Many were and continue to be involved with local lodges and social clubs, including the Coral City Elks Club, the Key of the Gulf Order of the Eastern Star, Union Lodge No. 47 Free and Accepted Masons, and the Silverettes Social Club, to name a few.
Frederick Douglas School, Key West’s historically black high school, educated the majority of Allen descendants until 1965, when the school was desegregated by law. Many were participants in the school’s famous marching band and learned to be great orators from teachers and role models there.
In terms of spirituality, the Allen immigrants were initially members of the English Wesleyan Methodist Church located at 717 Simonton Street. However, many left the church when it converted to the Presbyterian denomination, and instead joined the newly formed Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church founded in 1932 by Rev. George W. Allen. Many Allens and their descendants continue to be members of and active in Trinity, although some family members did remain with the new Presbyterian church, and others joined a variety of local churches.
* Author's note: Addie's name is spelled differently on each of the 1873, 1875, and 1877 hand-written records of the birth of her children. However, the following items are consistent, making me confident that she is the woman referred to in all three: the first initial is the same and the first name is similar, all have Eliza as part of the name, Knowles is the former surname for each, and all three reference her husband William Allen.
** Author's note 2: Addie's maiden surname had incorrectly been reported as Culmer in the past. A search of 19th Century Bahamian birth records has shown that she was instead formerly a Knowles, or perhaps a Mingo as reported in the LDS International Genealogical database for Caribbean Island records. More research will clarify.
to Allen Family History