Africatown, Alabama

Africatown’s Environment: The Race and Justice Narrative

Ramsey Sprague, Vickii Howell & Renee Kemp-Rotan


Local community leader Ramsey Sprague, with report editors Renee Kemp-Rotan and Vickii Howell, discuss Africatown’s long history of industrial pollution and its woeful legacies. They share the stories of local nonprofit groups and new public–private partnerships attempting to confront environmental racism through advocacy, remediation, and planning.

Concentration of industry as seen from the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge. Credit: Mike Kittrell for the Birmingham Times

Environmental Racism: A Struggle through the Ages

Africatown has struggled with environmental racism for most of its existence. For decades, industry expanded along its waterfront periphery, surrounding the central residential neighborhood. By the mid-twentieth century, the local environment was already heavily polluted by industrial manufacturers and chemical refineries. What this meant for the adjacent historic Black community was seemingly not considered. 

In 1960, Africatown residents voted for annexation into Mobile, motivated, in part, by the opportunity to connect to the municipal water system instead of drawing from contaminated wells. But annexation brought further environmental challenges, as the city zoned even more of the community’s land for industrial use. Rezoning also led to the construction of aboveground petrochemical storage tank farms.

Storage tanks in Africatown. Credit: Mike Kittrell for the Birmingham Times

Only with the strengthening of federal air quality regulations in 1990 and the closure of an International Paper mill and its chemical refining components in the late 1990s did the community breathe a sigh of relief. However, just a decade later there were new proposals for a petrochemical transmission pipeline and a threefold expansion of the aboveground storage tanks. The proposal prompted outrage from residents who had believed that their 2012 designation as a Historic District offered them protection and that their days of fighting industrial encroachment and pollution were over.1Learn more about the community’s efforts to be named a historic district and other plans to protect and revivify the community. 

The controversy ignited community efforts to preserve and protect Africatown’s residents and their history—efforts that eventually led to both the defeat of the tank farm expansion and the discovery of the infamous slave ship Clotilda, which now offers the community opportunities for cultural tourism and alternative economic growth.2Learn more about the Clotilda and the community’s efforts to share its history and develop cultural tourism. 

However, yesterday’s harms have still not been fully reconciled with today’s hurt, as current and former residents believe the toxic exposure that they and their families experienced has cost precious lives, livelihoods, and opportunity.

Seeking Environmental Justice and Redress

Residents have begun asserting their legal rights to clean air, water, and soil, and have initiated court cases bearing witness to their intergenerational environmental grievances and seeking redress. 

To confront industrial polluters and environmental racism, Africatown residents helped found the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) in September 2013. Its first action was against the aforementioned proposals to build petrochemical storage tanks for Canadian tar sand oil.3Watch an early MEJAC protest against this proposal. 

A group of concerned medical doctors, business leaders, university professors, residents, and neighborhood advocates, from both Africatown and the greater Mobile region, took part in crafting a 66-page compendium with compelling analyses against continued expansion of petrochemical facilities on the west bank of the Mobile River. Statements compiled within the compendium were in direct response to the City of Mobile’s Planning Commission Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tanks’ recommendations that would permit petrochemical tanks near homes, schools, and churches.4 MEJAC, “No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns,” June 15, 2015. 

MEJAC was successful in defeating the tank farm expansion, and this success has provided a foundation for organizing around environmental concerns in the community.

One such effort was the launch of environmental justice organization Africatown~CHESS (Clean Health Educated Safe and Sustainable Africatown). It was created to be the Mobile-partner organization of the HBCU Gulf Coast Equity Consortium, a collaborative project between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and community-based organizations. The consortium is led by Texas Southern University Professor Dr. Robert Bullard, widely referred to as the Father of Environmental Justice, and Dr. Beverly Wright, founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. With a $3.38 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Consortium has been able to expand its networking capacity to study and address health and environmental issues in the Gulf Coast region using an equity and racial justice lens. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2014 KIDS COUNT data book ranks Alabama 44th among states for children’s wellbeing,5The Annie E. Casey Foundation, “2014 Kids Count Profile Alabama,” accessed April 23, 2021. due in part to the region’s disproportionate share of the nation’s chemical plants, refineries, seaports, and other polluting industries.6Texas Southern University, “TSU awarded $3.3 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation,” February 20, 2017. Africatown~CHESS, drawing upon the resources of the consortium, is using scientific research to explore the effects of environmental racism on Africatown residents and to challenge the community’s polluters. It aims to reestablish the health of a once-thriving neighborhood.

We want to ensure that a community surrounded by heavy industry is monitored on a regular basis to ensure the children of the community are not negatively affected when they are born and as they grow into adulthood. Air, water, and soil monitors should be set up in strategic locations and monitored often. Local, state, and national environmental agencies should submit an annual report to the Africatown community reporting on their environmental findings for the year.7Joe Womack, C.H.E.S.S. in Africatown,” Bridge the Gulf, January 9, 2018. —Joe Womack, director, Africatown~C.H.E.S.S.

Left: Joe Womack of CHESS speaking with a group in the Hog Bayou neighborhood of Africatown. Right: A dock-side view of Hog Bayou, a channel of Chickasaw Creek, which runs through an industrial area. Credits: Vickii Howell

CHESS is Not Playing

Africatown~CHESS can best be explained by describing what each letter in its acronym represents. 

  • C stands for clean. CHESS wants to ensure that Africatown is always a clean and well-manicured community.
  • H stands for healthy. Healthy consumption of food is also a concern. Africatown is a food desert. There is no store or food outlet of any kind within five miles of the community. 
  • E stands for educated. The adults and children of the community must be educated properly. To have a non-failing community, there must be no failing school and no failing families. The children are our future. If they are taught about the importance of growing up in a clean and safe environment, there is a good chance that the community will be clean and safe in the future. The adults in the community will be taught how to monitor the environment for themselves. They in turn will pass on that knowledge to their children.
  • S stands for safe. No Black-on-Black crime. No police brutality. No domestic violence. A drug-free zone… 
  • S stands for sustainable. The last word is the most important part of the organization. Stores, schools, municipal parks, housing, welcome centers, museums, and other facilities should all be developed in a way to last forever. Africatown as a community was founded in 1870, and the future planning of all areas (Hog Bayou, Plateau, Magazine, Happy Hills, Kelly Hills, and Lewis Quarters) should be done in a way that ensures the prosperous survival of the community.

As Joe Womack, Africatown~CHESS’s founder and director, writes: “CHESS projects are geared towards beautifying our streets and homes, producing quality produce and living standards, preserving the first public school for African-Americans in the state of Alabama, and creating a community of watchmen to retain the culture and heritage of a nearly forgotten people.”8Africatown-CHESS, “Our Mission,” accessed April 23, 2021. Africatown~CHESS is indeed a changemaker. The organization hopes to serve as an environmental justice model for other communities to follow.

Africatown’s Other Environmental Partners

In addition to MEJAC and Africatown~CHESS, many other organizations are partnering to address Africatown’s environmental challenges:

Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church (YMBC)
The historic YMBC is situated in the heart of the Plateau neighborhood. Pastor Christoper L. Williams Sr. began leading the congregation in 2006, and his environmental leadership has spawned several die-hard Africatown environmental justice champions from his congregation. YMBC continues to lead the town’s faith community on questions of environmental justice.

The National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA)
For the past two years, Africatown natives and supporters have been developing plans with Liz Smith-Incer, the National Park Service’s Mississippi Field Office director, to create a trail network that would link the historic community to the proposed Africatown USA State Park, a 150-acre parcel of undeveloped, city-owned land located 10 miles to the west. This trail network, called the Africatown Connections Blueway, is inspired by recommendations in the community-endorsed Africatown Neighborhood Plan.

“Being from the projects, Happy Hills (Josephine Allen), I realized I had to come home and make a difference," US Navy Chief Jason Lewis, founder of VETS (Visualizing Everyone That Serves), told Vickii Howell. Among its initiatives, VETS coordinates Navy recruits for service projects in Africatown. Credit: Vickii Howell

The Mobile County Training School (MCTS)
The MCTS engages in joint venture community outreach projects for environmental activism and design, and has partnered with the Mississippi State Landscape Architecture Department and design studios at Auburn University. Students have created innovative and compelling design ideas that incorporate community history while protecting the environment at sites including Under the Bridge, Place of Baptisms, and Africatown USA State Park.

M.O.V.E. (Making Opportunities Viable for Everyone) Mobile Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation
M.O.V.E. is a nonprofit organization that builds collaborative partnerships to develop innovative economic development strategies such as The Africatown International Design Idea Competition.

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ)
Founded by Dr. Beverly Wright, the Center is dedicated to improving the lives of children and families harmed by pollution and communities vulnerable to climate change in the Gulf Coast Region through research, education, and community and student engagement for policy change. DSCEJ also provides health and safety training for environmental careers. 

Sierra Club’s Mobile Bay Group
The Club’s environmental interests parallel the concerns of Africatown. Its members first alerted Africatown residents and stakeholders to the proposed expansion of the aboveground petrochemical storage tanks. Its members have supported Africatown’s efforts to challenge the environmental impacts of the State Docks expansion and the potentially dangerous impact of a coal ash pond at Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant.

The Black Environmental Justice Action Network
A project of the DSCEJ, the Network’s members include Mustafa Santiago Ali, now vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, and founder of Revitalization Strategies, a business focused on moving our most vulnerable communities from “surviving to thriving.” He offered advice and encouragement in a 2017 lecture in Africatown about his experiences in the EPA’s response to environmental justice issues in similarly situated communities across the United States.  

The National Black Environmental Justice Network
Also led by DSCEJ, the Network is being relaunched as part of the Movement for Black Lives to address continued environmental racism and its threats to Black communities.

Africatown’s EPA Assessment Grant Approved

The City of Mobile won a $300,000 brownfield assessment grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in May 2020 to evaluate and form cleanup plans for polluted sites in Africatown. The goal is to restore old industrial sites and other areas back into usable land for the community’s revitalization efforts. Specifically, the grant looks at lands that formerly housed an industrial plant, a sawmill, and the Josephine Allen Public Housing Complex. Africatown’s pending plans for the sites include the “Clotilda Landing” under the Africatown Bridge and the Place of Baptisms along Three Mile Creek, both part of the proposed Africatown Connections Blueway.

Of particular concern is the Mobile Housing Board’s Josephine Allen Public Housing Complex in Happy Hills, where there is an opportunity to create an innovative, maritime-themed residential, mixed-use development, anchored by a new museum.9Learn more about this proposal. Africatown’s environmental leaders believe all of Africatown should have been declared a brownfield or a Superfund site years ago, but no agency has done testing in the community. This grant finally allows the site to be tested. If it is found to be contaminated, no development can occur until it is cleaned up.

A class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 on behalf of about 1,200 Africatown residents claims that the former International Paper mill had for years spewed ash and released hazardous chemicals in volumes that exceeded EPA limits, leading to poor health outcomes such as high cancer rates. The lawsuit further claims that the company violated federal regulations by failing to properly clean up the site when it closed operations and bulldozed the plant 20 years ago, allowing dangerous chemicals to seep into the ground and spread to surrounding areas. 

The lawsuit has essentially been settled, according to a local newspaper. In 2020, the plaintiffs’ law firm Stewart and Stewart wrote in a letter to residents saying that they initially thought significant amounts of cancer-causing pollutants would be found in the community, based on tests performed by a local laboratory. But upon further testing, the pollutants were “merely at background levels, meaning the amounts were no different on Africatown property than from anywhere else.” Plaintiffs were urged to take cash settlements ranging from $8,000 to as little as $200. With 1,090 of the plaintiffs signing off, a joint dismissal of the lawsuit was filed on November 2, 2020, the article said.10Kevin Lee, “Africatown’s legacy of perseverance and poison,” Lagniappe Weekly, March 3, 2021. 

A former Africatown resident, whose mother still lives in the community, posted a portion of the firm’s letter on his Facebook in December 2020, lamenting the settlement as yet “another example of Africatown residents getting screwed. International Paper Company saying they will pay residents approximately $8,000 before attorney fees, if residents agree to waive their rights to future lawsuits. We can’t get a break …. while almost everyone in the community have (sic) cancer!”11Source: Direct quote from a Facebook post.

Plaintiff Ruth Ballard, who did not receive the letter, said numerous soil samples were taken from her home in the Plateau neighborhood. She found the results hard to accept, considering that her family’s history of cancer started with her siblings. Two brothers and one sister died of cancer; she and another brother have had it twice. Ballard would like to have seen the scientific data from the research herself while an expert explained the findings to her. “But when you don’t have the resources to fight, you’re at a loss,” she said.12Source: Transcript of notes from an interview with Ruth Ballard by Vickii Howell, April 20, 2021.

More research needs to be done using the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, which provides extensive data on pollution prevention and toxic chemical release information. For example, a simple search shows that Mobile County houses 47 toxic/pollution-producing industries, and that 30 of those toxic-producing industries are located within three miles of Africatown. Three of the top five are located in the town.

Historic Environmental Victory and Its Meaning for Africatown

A recent federal court settlement with the EPA now requires the agency to establish worst-case scenario spill planning regulations to help protect communities from releases of dangerous chemicals at tens of thousands of industrial facilities nationwide. This is significant for environmental justice communities, given that this legal challenge dragged on for over 40 years. 

For Africatown, the settlement means that local industries need to establish measures to prevent spills resulting from disasters such as hurricanes or industrial accidents (e.g., the 2010 BP oil spill). 

The state has also allocated $3.5 million from its BP oil spill settlement to build an Africatown welcome center; the old one was washed away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A Plan for Environmental Justice

Honoring the creative and resilient spirit of its African-born freedmen founders, Africatown’s leaders seek to foster scientific research opportunities to explore the impacts of environmental racism upon their people such that they may serve as a dignified model for other similarly situated communities. 

Yes, Africatown, that small, historically Black town, has earned its good reputation in the environmental justice community for fighting billion-dollar companies that devastate its community with toxic waste.13D. Amari Jackson, “Africatown, A Small Historically Black Town Fighting a Billion Dollar Company That’s Devastating Its Community with Toxic Waste,” Atlanta Black Star, February 25, 2018. Today, Clotilda descendants and community activists are depending on local and regional environmental partners to develop an Action Plan for Environmental Justice in Africatown. 

 Such a plan would work to achieve the following goals: 

  • a status check and update on the extent of polluted air, land, water and efforts toward remediation, 
  • a timeline of community environmental lawsuits14Learn more about some of these lawsuits. and the wins and losses against industrial polluters,
  • continued support for the Africatown Brownfield Grant
  • national EPA grants to build capacity of local environmental justice groups, 
  • grants to build capacity of local environmental groups to recruit and train young adults for the environmental education Green Team Program,
  • an environmental plan for the Africatown Cultural Mile15Learn more about the proposed Africatown Cultural Mile. and strategies for clean tourism, 
  • continued vigilance around all land use zoning changes that attempt to expand industrial uses into residential districts, and that do not follow the Africatown Neighborhood Plan,
  • the establishment of an Africatown Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice Compliance and Enforcement, to restore, reaffirm, and reconcile environmental justice and civil rights for the Africatown community, and
  • a community benefits agreement with environmental impact statements in accordance with the National Trust for Preservation Act of 1966, Section 106, for review of all existing and future industrial sites. 


Ramsey Sprague

was born in Houma, Louisiana, and raised in Arlington, Texas. Sprague is an enrolled tribal member of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe and currently serves as a volunteer facilitator for the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) in Mobile, Alabama, where they currently live. Sprague’s faith and ethic drive their commitment to environmental and climate justice and their resolve to help develop a fairer economy via a just transition from fossil fuel dependency for the benefit of future generations and to honor both the living and departed traditional caretakers of our lands.

Vickii Howell

is a journalist, writer, PR strategist, and socially conscious community builder. Upon returning home to Mobile in 2013, Howell joined the Mobile NAACP, becoming its executive director. She is currently the founder and president of M.O.V.E. (Making Opportunities Viable for Everyone) Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization to build collaborative partnerships with businesses, governments, and other nonprofits to create a supportive economic development ecosystem that grows the businesses and socioeconomic capacity of entrepreneurs, workers, and families in historically underserved communities. Read more.

Renee Kemp-Rotan

(Associate AIA/NOMA) is an urban designer, master planner, and the CEO of studiorotan, a cultural heritage/civic design firm. She is the first African American woman to graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. She attended London’s Architectural Association and graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in urban and regional planning. Kemp-Rotan is currently the professional competition advisor for The Africatown International Design Idea CompetitionRead more.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.