Designed to enhance reading, research skills, creative ability, and social and intellectual development, the Museum Academy is a cultural arts enrichment program for youth ages seven to eleven in collaboration with schools in the southeast neighborhoods of Washington, DC. I was delighted to stroll through our gallery and program room and find the students engaged in yoga practice this week, during the school year the Museum Academy is located in our partner schools. This summer has offered a nice change as our students are coming to the museum on a daily basis to attend our program and they offer me a good reminder to get on the mat.
Artist Amber Robles Gordon creates art from recycled materials and fiber. She sat down with the Anacostia Community Museum to discuss her practice and craft.
The last stop on our Gulf Coast tour was the historic town of Bayou La Batre, made famous by the movie Forrest Gump. Here local activist and former 3rd generation shrimper Paul Nelson leads efforts to improve services for the town which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina when the highest storm surge ever recorded in the area (16 ft), and then again by the BP oil spill, 5 years later.
Mr. Nelson had a prosperous oyster business back in 2005, and a processing plant, the foundation of which is pictured below. No stranger to rebuilding a business, Mr. Nelson restarted his fishing business as a younger man after another disaster, but says of this time, “I am too old to begin again.” Now, the foundation of his oyster processing plant is a home to an RV and trailer, which provide permanent housing for Mr. Nelson’s relatives, 10 years after Katrina first made shore.
We stopped at the local cemetery, where Mr. Nelson’s own stepson is buried. He died at the age of 28 of an unknown health issue. Mr. Nelson has been active in advocating for the disbursement of Katrina/BP funds to help with the health issues he reports all around the Bayou La Batre – Coden communities. He has written passionately on behalf of his family and neighbors, detailing the continuing travails in the community. In a December 2010 letter submitted to ehumanrights.org, he writes:
Coden has never seen so many people pass away in such a short time. My neighbor Delaphine Barber, age 75 lost her home and died from a heart attack about a year after Katrina. Other neighbors who died, trying to survive in the [formaldehyde emitting] FEMA campers, and hoping to see their homes rebuilt were: Sally Dismukes, age 72, died of a heart attack; Tommy Barbour age 56, died of lung cancer; Michael Goleman, age 36 father of two teenage daughters, suicide; Shirley Clark, age 65, complications from a staph infection; Randy Hall, age 45, lung cancer; Nancy Maples, age 57. Most have spouses or children who are still hoping to see their family homes rebuilt. My mother Hilda Nelson died after living in a FEMA camper over a year and hoping for assistance to rebuild the family that never came…
Mr. Nelson locates many of the community’s health problems to after an oil dispersant was sprayed over the Gulf Coast shores in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The dispersant was meant to put the oil on top of the water at the bottom of the ocean.
Today Mr. Nelson continues to advocate on behalf of his beloved Bayou La Batre. The first day we went to see him Mr. Nelson never showed up. He was in the hospital dealing with complications from diabetes and blood clots. Despite his illness, Mr. Nelson insisted we come back the next day, finishing the tour in his modest pre-fabricated home, where Urban Waterways researcher interviewed him for several hours.
All the interviews and audio we collected our available by making an appointment with the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. We encourage you to visit our archives and use our research for your own studies.
Unaware I was at the time, but in making our research trip to Africatown, we were following in the footsteps of acclaimed writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston who visited in 1928 in order to interview the last remaining formerly enslaved man in America, Africatown resident Cudjoe Lewis. Originally born in what is now Benin, Cudjoe Lewis was born Oluale Kossola and captured in his early twenties to be part of the cargo of the Clothilde, the last ship to transport captured Africans to the United States.
You can read more about the lives of the passengers of the Clothilde in the book by author Sylviane Anna Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama. Today, the descendants of Africatowns original settlers are some of the few African Americans who can trace their lineage back to Africa.
Urban Waterways researcher Katrina Lashley and I met with Joe Womack, a local activist in the Africatown community at the old Mobile County Training School, the local high school, where the Africatown historical collection is housed in a cinderblock building used for events called, “The Den.” There the community works to preserve their history and maintain their community, while protecting it from ongoing environmental concerns.
The various displays preserving Africatown’s history, lineage, an individuals are testament to the pride this community takes in sharing their heritage, and the tenuousness with which they have been supported in their efforts to preserve this historical village.
After we interviewed and recorded several residents stories, including Mary Louise Moorer, pictured above, Mr. Womack gave us a tour of the greater Africatown environs. The first stop was the large community garden that Africatown residents use for sustenance.
Nearly every waterway appeared to be flanked by industry: Scott Paper, tank farms, Plank Marketing’s storage tanks holding environmental waste imported from Canada line the shores of the Mobile River near Magazine Point, a part of Africatown. These original tracts of Africatown have been cut off from each other by development, as in the case of the neighborhood of Lewis Quarters. And Africatown is not alone. Uniting with environmental and social justice activists along the coast, Africatown is sharing stories through outlets like Bridge the Gulf, and building awareness for their precarious existence not far from the shores of the Mobile River.
The entrance of Lewis Quarters, built by the descendants of Cudjoe Lewis, is cut off from the rest of Africatown by a meat packing plant and lumber mill, which cause environmental degradation to the immediate environs.
This is just a brief overview of the historic community of Africatown, Alabama, a Gulf Coast community struggling to preserve itself while facing the challenges of industry, development, politics and resources.
This year in honor of Black History month students at Savoy Elementary got together to create a Black History Month program which featured a variety of developing talents in dance, word, writing, yoga, and stilt-walking. The Anacostia Community Museum Academy is based out of Savoy Elementary and the program featured a number of Museum Academy students.
February 29, 2016 – Members of the Anacostia Community Museum Academy during a yoga demonstration at a Black History Month event at Savoy Elementary in SE Washington, DC.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 . . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
Friday January 15 saw the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life and legacy, an annual program hosted by the Anacostia Community Museum, at the Baird auditorium in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The keynote address by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, and an on-stage discussion on the theme of “Looking Back, Moving Forward” with moderator Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library system were well attended.
Urban Waterways researcher Katrina Lashley and I continued our gulf coast exploration with local activist, Mickey Sou, of Asian Americans for Change, an advocacy group that was founded in the vacuum created by Hurricane Katrina, where communities found they needed to organize to facilitate more engagement with officials in the chaos of the post-storm recovery. Mickey Sou was born in Montana, the child of Vietnamese immigrants. He was one month old when his parents relocated to Biloxi.
Many Vietnamese emigrated to the gulf coast following the end of the Vietnam war. Biloxi has a strong Vietnamese community comprised of many of these first and second wave immigrants and their families, who established strong ties in the shrimping community.
The warm waters of the gulf coast provided a good living for fishermen dredging the waters for oysters and shrimp. Hurricane Katrina was devastating, but many were able to go back to making their living after the storm clean-up. The BP oil spill, five years later in 2005 severely compromised the environment and eliminated this livelihood for many. A website, BridgeTheGulfProject.org, gathers the stories of many Gulf Coast residents and depicts the plight of Vietnamese fishermen four years after BP in the entry here.
The gulf coast today is still in recovery from natural and man-made disasters. We hope that you will follow along as we continue to process and go deeper into our research and share with you in their own words, the experiences of these gulf coast residents and their communities.
The Anacostia Community Museum exhibit opening for Twelve Years that Shook and Shaped Washington was a bittersweet affair, held shortly after the passing of Head Curator Portia James in early December. Portia had worked at the Anacostia Community Museuem for over thirty years, guiding many exhibitions including this last.