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.