January 26, 2022

Hearing Spirit Speak: Preserving Africatown as a Site of Black Resistance

The story of Africatown, just outside of Mobile, Alabama, is one of Black resistance against a system of Black oppression that ends with an established Black community.

In 1860, in defiance of the ban on importing enslaved Africans to the United States, white Alabama shipbuilder Timothy Meaher, smuggled a boat of enslaved people without being caught. Subsequently, Meaher led a voyage on the Clotilda to Africa where he purchased prisoners of war taken by the kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin. Meaher forcibly transported the enslaved people to the United States, then sold them to plantations throughout Alabama. He burned the Clotilda to hide the evidence.

Despite the nature of chattel slavery, designed to break the spirits of those enslaved Africans, they resisted, eventually reconnected, and procured land to establish themselves in this new world. Today, the Africatown Historic Preservation Foundation works to preserve that legacy after decades of transportation and environmental challenges.

A Black and Yellow historical marker telling the history of Open Plateau Cemetery/Africatown Graveyard in Mobile, Alabama.

photo by: Leigh T. Harrell via CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the historic markers that tells the story of Africatown.

Building Africatown

Following Meaher's successful bet, the enslaved Africans were sold to the plantations of those who had funded the voyage. Out of the 110 captives, 32 were kept in Meaher's possession. Zora Neale Hurston’s recently published Barracoon tells the story of Cudjoe, the last living captive of the Clotilda and a key leader in Africatown. Cudjoe told the story of their desire to go back to Africa after emancipation and the ways they sought to go home.

Eventually, they took matters into their own hands. As Cudjoe is quoted in Barracoon, “Cudjoe tell de people what Cap’t Tim say. Dey say, “Well, we buy ourself a piece of lan’. We workee hard and eat molasses and bread and buy de lan’ from de Meaher.” Four families raised enough money to purchase seven acres of land, which grew into the flourishing community now known as Africatown.

The enslaved Africans that were smuggled into Alabama came from different ethnic groups and combined traditions and customs in their community. The result became a community that honored its Yoruba, Ewe, and Fon roots while also embracing new identities as other African Americans moved into Alabama, looking for work in the paper mills in Mobile.

Detail of the Cudjoe Lewis marker in Africatown

photo by: Womump via CC BY-SA 4.0

Detail view of the Cudjoe Lewis Marker at Africatown.

Africatown bloomed into a community that preserved its African cultural traditions well into the 1950s, creating a community school, church, and cemetery. While Africatown grew as a self-sustaining community, it was not completely exempt from the impact of the outside world. Environmental impacts from the legacy of paper mills were prevalent in the community, a place that not only provided income for residents but affected much of the fresh water supply and wildlife, so much so that the residents sued for damages in 1997. The paper mills also created a health crisis, with many of the residents of Africatown dying from cancer caused by chemicals released by International Paper and Scott Paper Co. mills and plants.

The creation of urban renewal projects impacted the community as well, separating the community via the construction of the Africatown Bridge in 1991.The construction of the Bay Bridge Road has split the community’s church and cemetery, dividing the two entities from one another. The city of Mobile is also seeking to preserve its own interests in the area, looking to bring industry to the area as part of government trade initiatives.

View of a bridge in Mobile, Alabama.

photo by: Altairisfar via Wikimedia Commons

A view of the Cochran-Africatown Bridge in Mobile, Alabama.

Today, Africatown is a historic site and ongoing preservation project, saving the legacies of the 32 enslaved Africans who laid the foundation of the community and connecting its descendants. With all of these challenges, it was clear that the community needed more support to protect this historic site.

Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation

Founded in 2019 and funded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation (AHPF) documents the community’s legacy through public history projects, while also sustaining community members through services, education, and more.

Much like other historic Black sites, there is a delicate balance between accepting outside support and staying true to the essence of the people. Often, the needs of the state and the needs of the people don’t mesh. But Anderson Flen, one of AHPF’s founders, sees the influence of the state as advantageous for their work and sees places where the needs overlap.

Africatown has been able to not only sustain the community constituents, but bring in outside support to bolster the community-led work. Flen says, “The community has really been in a defensive mode for a long, long, time, because it has not had a strategy to move forward. How you navigate that now is you put a strategy in place, you put credible organizations in place to be able to receive resources that can directly impact and help the community in different ways.”

AHPF is one organization that has been developed with not just outside support, but community support in mind. Flen says that with the development of AHPF, the community now has a way to receive funding directly rooted within the community itself.

It’s also working to build trust with government officials who support the work of the community, like county commissioners that Flen says are helping Africatown set up a redevelopment corporation to address the community’s housing insecurity. AHPF is setting up infrastructure that is held by the community itself, which allows the community to present a unified front to the state government and to receive outside supports.

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Protecting Genealogical Records

Alongside the work to preserve and care for the physical site of Africatown, AHPF also seeks to preserve the existing genealogical connections to Africatown. While Africatown has been primarily populated by those with connections to the Clotilda, many people have moved out of Mobile and have not come back to stay, according to Flen. One of the tenets of AHPF is to support descendants in this particular aspect of their ancestor research to hopefully create a more complete picture of the lives of those on the Clotilda.

In regards to the research, Flen says that there is a major gap that, while individuals are doing their own work to locate their connection to Africatown, the international question of who exactly was on the Clotilda is still a challenge. "A lot of work has not been done on identifying the individuals on those ships, but [researchers] have the names," says Flen. "They need professional help in order to identify [their descendants] them." Doing so would address the gaps in the story of Africatown, a mission that Flen says is a priority for AHPF.

A view of a cemetery with markers lined up in green grass.

photo by: Leigh T. Harrell under CC BY-SA 3.0

A view of the Africatown Cemetery.

Remembering Africatown

While Flen no longer lives in Mobile, he regularly visits and knows the history intimately. This comes from not only through the work he does at AHPF, but also from his love of Africatown’s history and community. He says his desire to remember is what fuels his love for this work.

Communities come to preservation projects for many reasons. The main motivator for Africatown is the spirit of the original 32 enslaved Africans, who seeded the legacy that would become Africatown today, and who seek to have their story told. One of the spaces where that spirit lives is the cemetery of the Union Baptist Missionary Church, where the communities’ founders are buried.

“When I go to Mobile, one of the first places I go is the cemetery. I go there because I remember,” Flen reflects as he speaks about the importance of honoring the spirit of Africatown. “And those people are talking to me.”

From the Africatown Connections Blueway to the growing genealogical work, the preservation of Africatown focuses on sharing the story of this place and connecting this community to a legacy of resistance that continues into the present day. Flen says that "Africatown has an opportunity to shape the world on how to go about telling the story that is inclusive of the experiences that have happened in those communities….which is why there is an effort to destroy these communities to prove they didn’t exist."

Despite best efforts to exterminate sites of Black resistance like Africatown, a community-led desire to tell the true story remains. Flen recalls a story of the lantern walk, where each graduating student from the community’s technical school would take a lantern around the school grounds followed by a pilgrimage to the cemetery in order to give thanks to those who came to Mobile on the Clotilda.

The preservation of Africatown is serving as its own lantern walk, where members of the community are bringing light to the land’s history and giving thanks to those enslaved people who resisted and made it all possible. For Flen, the motivation is clear: “We must go back, and we must remember.”

Editor's Note: This story was edited to reflect conversations with the Clotilda descendant community.

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Orilonise Yarborough is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Orilonise is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public history at North Carolina Central University. Her research interests include oral histories, Black LGBTQ life and political organization, historic preservation of plantations, and Black women’s resistance movements.

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