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 . . . .