Urban Waterways Research Project: Africatown, Alabama Part One

December 11, 2015 - A historical exhibit in Africatown near Mobile, Alabama. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – A historical exhibit in Africatown near Mobile, Alabama.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Africatown, Alabama was the location of our penultimate stop along the Gulf Coast for this segment of the Urban Waterways Research Project .  Africatown, which is also known as AfricaTown USA or Plateau, is located just 3 miles north of downtown Mobile.  The origin story of Africatown is inexorably tied to the story of slavery in the U.S.  The slave trade had been outlawed in the US in 1808.  Just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, a group of wealthy southern landowners  wagered a bet that they could defy federal law and import a boat of slaves undetected into the US.  Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, financed the last known ship of enslaved Africans, the Clothilde, to Alabama after betting an alleged $100,000 that he would do so undetected.

December 11, 2015 - A marker commemorates the name of the slaveholder Meaher in Africatown, Alabama. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – A marker commemorates the name of  Meaher in Africatown, Alabama.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Meaher lost his bet, but avoided conviction, likely because of the start of the Civil War.  The majority of the slaves stayed in the area, first as slaves owned by investors in Meaher’s folly, and later as a free people following the outcome of the Civil War.

December 11, 2015 - The only remaining remnant of former slaves homes is a chimney in Africatown, Alabama. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – The only remaining remnant of former slaves homes is a chimney in Africatown, Alabama.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

They settled on Meaher’s land, designing a community very much like that of their West African homeland, retaining their language, traditions and culture well into the 21st century.

December 11, 2015 - A tour of the Africatown, Alabama environs which is surrounded by industrial plants. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – Magazine Point, the site where the passengers of the Clothilde first disembarked at the convergence of the Mobile River and Three Mile Creek.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Today, the city of Mobile has built up around Africatown. Access to the Mobile River, including the site where the Clothilde’s passengers first disembarked – a site of historical significance known as Magazine Point, is populated by a tank farm which holds tar oil sands imported from Canada.

December 11, 2015 - Containers and cargo line the shoreline of the Mobile River near Africatown, Alabama. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – Containers and cargo line the shoreline of the Mobile River near Africatown, Alabama seen from the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

According to local activist, Joe Womack, this site is slated to be expanded, and is just one of many afflictions to this area.  He reported in the community website, Bridge the Gulf:

Another tragedy occurred when the Africatown Guardians were convinced to let the Alabama Highway Department rebuild The Cochrane Bridge after it had been damaged during a hurricane. Before then the Africatown residents had always resisted efforts to rebuild the bridge. The Highway Department told Africatown they would change the name of the Cochrane Bridge to The Africatown Cochrane Bridge and the residents fell for it.

 

Today that bridge that used to be about one quarter mile long is now about 2 miles in length and half of Magazine Point had to be destroyed or moved to accommodate this new bridge. That area was next declared a flood zone and now to get a permit to repair older homes, residents must first raise their house to a certain level and most residents can’t afford to do that. Consequently, houses are not being repaired. Miraculously, residents manage to maintain their homes as best they can.

 

Tragically, during the 1990’s an asphalt company decided to relocate from West Mobile to Magazine Point almost in the middle of the night and without going through all the proper channels. After local resident complained and the newspaper did a story on it, the owner’s comments were,”I didn’t think I needed any permits to relocate in this area”. The business was allowed to continue construction after paying only a small fine and is still polluting the area today.”

December 11, 2015 - A tour of the Africatown, Alabama environs which is surrounded by industrial plants. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – Local activist Joe Womack stands underneath the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge near where the passengers in the Clothilde disembarked.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Ironically, Magazine Point is also the final resting place of this last shipment of slaves because Africatown’s Cemetery is located in Magazine Point. Their graves face eastward, towards their African homeland.

December 11, 2015 - The Old Plateau cemetery established in 1876 for Africatown residents. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 11, 2015 – The Old Plateau cemetery established in 1876 for Africatown residents.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

In my travels throughout the country, I am sometimes dismayed by the disregard given to the decaying reminders of a shameful shared history.  I encourage all communities to re-examine their history, and pay homage by preserving the memory and the object that defines our historically significant moments.  As George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The community of Africatown represents the resilience and community organizing spirit of a people brought to America against their will, and who survived, adapted, and perhaps thrived, not because of but in spite of (to paraphrase William Faulkner).

This is part one of our Africatown sojourn. To be continued . . . .

 

Urban Waterways Research Project: Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

 

A third stop on our tour of the Mississippi/Alabama coast was the small town of Moss Point, Mississippi.  A small community with a population less than 20,000 people, Moss Point was hit by the strong eastern side of Hurricane Katrina, when it passed 30 miles east of central New Orleans. Much of Moss Point was flooded or destroyed in one day, by the strong hurricane-force winds which lasted several hours and a storm surge exceeding 20 feet in some areas.  You can see some of the devastation at Moss Point in the wake of the hurricane here.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

We were coming to tour the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, a part of the National Audubon Society: a non-profit organization focused on promoting conservation and education about birds and wildlife and the habitats that support them. Perched on the watershed of the Pascagoula River, one of the last, large, free-flowing river systems in the contiguous United States, a state of the art green building houses the center.  This place is a birder’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds enjoying the ecosystem there.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Here, Mark LaSalle at the center gives a tour of the wetlands around the center. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Here, Mark LaSalle at the center gives a tour of the wetlands around the center.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Mark LaSalle is the Director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Mark is responsible for coordinating the continued development of the  Center and expanding Audubon’s educational and citizen science programs in south Mississippi. Mark is a wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans.  Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Here, Mark LaSalle at the center gives a tour of the wetlands around the center. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Here, Mark LaSalle at the center gives a tour of the wetlands around the center.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Mark’s passion for his work is palpable as he shows us around the Center and the many sustainable environmental practices they have implemented.  He also saved an original 1930’s boy scout cottage on the center’s site which is used for small group meetings.  He was instrumental in helping the community leaders of Turkey Creek protect that body of water from further development.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – Inside the restored cottage of Mississippi Boy Scout Troop 220, dating from 1932.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Together, Audubon and community leaders in Gulfport, Mississippi are protecting Turkey Creek‘s rich cultural and natural history. When LaSalle became director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, 30 miles from Turkey Creek, he brought with him a commitment to the community’s plight. With local activist Derrick Evans,  Mark began small with simple events like Creek Sweep focused on getting people into the “creek” to remove decades of debris.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – Development on the Pascagoula River near the Audubon Center at Moss Point, Mississippi.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Promotion of the Great Backyard Bird Count and a one-day Biological Inventory of the creek helped to highlight just how special the area was as a refuge for common birds and wildlife and as an important stopover for migrating birds in spring and fall. The value of the site for birds led Audubon and the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society to recognize Turkey Creek as a site on the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail.

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Pascagoula River Audubon Center coopted the resources of a visiting artist to make these murals on the center’s fence at Moss Point, Mississippi.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

“The Turkey Creek community has long recognized Audubon’s role in helping it raise attention about the value of our natural areas for birds and people and for being the first group of naturalists to do so. Being identified on Audubon’s Coastal Birding Trail by Judy Toups, Don McKee and Mark LaSalle, provided a pivotal boost to our credibility and confidence as a place that is important beyond our immediate borders.”– Derrick Evans

December 10, 2015 - The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 10, 2015 – The Chimney Swift Tower, built by a boy scout for his project, provides shelter to the only swift occurring regularly in the east. It once nested in hollow trees, but today it nearly always nests in chimneys or other structures. Because the bird can be easily captured and banded in such situations, it has been studied much more thoroughly than other North American swifts. In late summer, hundreds or even thousands of individuals may roost in one large chimney, gathering in spectacular flocks overhead near dusk..
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Many other organizations have joined forces with the Turkey Creek Community Initiative , established by Derrick in 2003 with a mission “to conserve, restore and utilize the unique cultural, historical and environmental resources of the Turkey Creek community and watershed for education and other socially beneficial purposes.”

I left inspired by the good work that Mark LaSalle and his staff do at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi: from preservation to education, advocacy and coalition building, the center is doing good work to preserve the environmental resources for future generations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

 

“Twelve Years That Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963-1975”

Installation shot of works by Lou Stovall. Deputy Director Sharon Reinckens set the placement and installation followed.

Installation shot of works by Lou Stovall. Deputy Director Sharon Reinckens set the placement and installation followed.

"After" pic - from the floor to the wall.

“After” pic – from the floor to the wall.

Another view of the installation.

Another view of the installation.

I arrived at an exciting time here at ACM; just in time for the installation of our new temporary exhibition “Twelve Years That Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963-1975”. As the Registrar for the museum, my role in the exhibition was to prepare and install the artifacts that are on display.  These artifacts are a mixture of objects and paintings held by ACM and material the museum borrowed from other museums, archives, artists and private individuals.  The information presented in the exhibition is punctuated by these artifacts – providing the visitor with historical examples to illustrate the information presented in the exhibition.

We have 13 screen-prints by Lou Stovall on view in the exhibition, illustrating many community themes and events in Washington in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was fortunate to meet Mr. Stovall when I went to pick the artwork up at his home.  A prolific screen printer, I was invited into his studio to see where he works.  The volume of work in the studio was staggering, and absolutely beautiful.  The works that we borrowed for our exhibition may have been hidden in Mr. Stovall’s basement for years, as foretold by the condition of the plastic protecting the works.  After bringing the prints back to the museum and examining them for condition, I was greeted by bright, vibrant colors so fitting of the time period which would immediately evoke feelings of nostalgia for our visitors.

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