If We Can Save the Ship, We Can Save the Town
Renee Kemp-Rotan discusses how the history of Africatown, Alabama, could be a catalyst for cultural renewal and economic regeneration.
Africatown enshrines and preserves the indomitable spirit of our ancestors. That it continues to exist, validates the genius of its builders, the embodiment of their West African spirituality, intelligence, and skills. Thus, Africatown is an American ode to Africa, a symbol of resiliency in the face of slavery’s treachery. Africatown is an example of community-building in the 19th century and the Africatown International Design Idea Competition is a blueprint for its revitalization in the 21st century.1Source: Transcript of notes from a meeting of the Africatown International Design Idea Competition jury. —Natalie Robertson, author, The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA
Historic Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, shot to the forefront of the world’s consciousness with the Alabama Historical Commission’s sensational May 2019 announcement that the sunken slave ship Clotilda had been finally discovered in the Mobile River delta. The schooner illegally brought 110 kidnapped West Africans from Ouidah, a coastal city in the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin), to America’s shores in 1860 on prominent plantation owner Timothy Meaher’s bet that he could illegally ship Africans from Africa to Mobile without detection by federal troops.
At the end of the Civil War, the Africans were emancipated, after five and a half years of slavery. Lacking money to go home, about half of the group bought land from Meaher and built a church, cemetery, school, and houses, thus organizing and forming their own community in an area called Plateau, about three miles north of Alabama’s port city, Mobile.
Led by Cudjo Kazoola Lewis (Yoruba name Oluale Kossola), these emancipated Africans called this place “African Town” to honor their beloved homeland to which they could not return. It is the first and only nineteenth-century settlement built by freed Africans in the United States. African American anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Lewis in 1927 in a series of interviews dedicated to him as “the last living slave”—now part of the best-selling book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” published in 2018. Then, in 2019, the Clotilda discovery was publicly confirmed. Now, Africatown is recognized globally as an important African American cultural heritage site.
I first learned about Africatown after being commissioned by the Mobile nonprofit M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation to assist the community as an urban designer. This has led to three years of study, work, and sustained community engagement, developing three-dimensional possibilities of what Africatown could become. My work here continues, as I now serve as the professional competition advisor for M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast CDC’s Africatown International Design Idea Competition (also sponsored by the American Institute of Architects [AIA], National Organization of Minority Architects [NOMA], Visit Mobile, the Michael C. and Patsy B. Dow Charitable Fund, and the 400 Years of African-American History Commission, among others). In this American Roundtable report, the editorial team and I hope to explore Africatown’s Deep South traditions, decades of disappointments, and new push for descendant engagement in cultural tourism as a means to generate revenue for long-overdue community revitalization. It’s time for uplift and rebranding.
Our goal is for organizations and individuals to use this report to:
- examine Africatown’s past development,
- employ the Clotilda discovery as a lever for economic recovery in Africatown,
- form a consortium of descendants, creative thinkers, and subject matter experts for ongoing discussions about public space, public health, infrastructure, work and economy, and environment,
- pursue creative placemaking and redevelopment options for Africatown through ongoing projects, including The Africatown International Design Idea Competition and its companion efforts: The Africatown Cultural Mile, The Cudjo Lewis House Blueprint Initiative, and The Africatown Connections Blueway, and
- unleash Africatown’s potential as a revenue-generating, world-class cultural destination by showcasing fresh historic narratives that induce greater investment in its physical and cultural landscape.
The Clotilda Discovery
On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, former AL.com reporter Ben Raines reports that he may have discovered the fabled shipwreck near Twelve Mile Island in the Mobile River delta. Africatown, long ignored and in significant demographic and economic decline, is “rediscovered” at this time. In March, when experts confirm that Raines’ find doesn’t match the description of the Clotilda, Raines continues his search.
Working with a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) hydrographic science team, he performs another marine survey of sunken shipwrecks near Twelve Mile Island, close to the first find.
He then makes a second find in April 2018. The USM team shares data with the Alabama Historical Commission, which in turn hires cultural resource management company Search, Inc. The effort is backed by National Geographic and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and its Slave Wrecks Program, with support from George Washington University’s Maritime Archaeology Department, the Black Scuba Divers Association, and Divers With A Purpose. All entities involved jointly verify that the second find is Clotilda.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019: The Alabama Historical Commission officially announces the discovery of the Clotilda and holds a large press conference on May 30, 2019 in tandem with a large, community-organized celebration. Africatown becomes the subject of intense local, national, and global media coverage. Descendants are jubilant. For them, the discovery means that, through related investment, they will be able to both repair and reimagine their beloved Africatown as a unique cultural landscape in America.
I’ve heard people say it’s a myth. Well, it’s not a myth. They came here on the ship. We knew the ship was there. Now, the saga is completed . . .2See source. —Cleon Jones, president, Africatown Community Development Corporation, member of the 1969 New York “Miracle” Mets baseball team, longtime Africatown resident
Vindication, Verification, and Validation | The Discovery in Context
The Clotilda discovery meant vindication for Africatown elders, for whom stories of the burning ship were a part of their blood memory and oral history. This truth had been obscured over the years, as those, such as shipbuilders and plantation owners, who might have shed more light on the events of the past neither publicly confirmed nor denied the existence of the ship and its crimes.3While slavery was still legal in the United States, the Congress abolished the international slave trade in 1808. Instead, a communal selective amnesia cast doubt on the descendants’ stories.
This attempted erasure began from the start. Following Clotilda’s arrival in Mobile Bay, Captain William Foster burned it to destroy evidence of its illegal activities. No ship manifest was officially recorded, which led federal officials to issue summonses to Foster, Timothy Meaher, his brother Byrnes, and others to appear in court. While there were hearings and some fines paid in 1861, there was never any real punishment for the slavers.5Sylviane A. Diouf, “Arrival in Mobile,” Dreams of Africa in Alabama; The Last Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 87. Neither witnesses nor the African captives appeared in court, the federal judge was himself a slave owner, and Alabama was on the brink of seceding from the United States at the start of the Civil War.6Natalie S. Robertson, The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of Africatown, USA (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2008), 65–73.7Read more about the court proceedings surrounding the Clotilda.
Years later, aged 77 and sitting in comfort on his front porch, Timothy Meaher recounted his act of piracy to a reporter for the Globe-Democrat as a daring exploit.8See source. More recently, the Meaher family—still prominent in Mobile society and major landowners—have stayed quiet about this history. Yet this African community has continued to share its story with those who care to listen to their version of the voyage, the terror in the swamps, and the dynamiting of the ship—their lives in captivity and their yearning to be free and to go home—the story so often “ghosted” by the dominant society of the South.
While Africatown was initially conceived as a place of self-governance and self-determination, by the 20th century the community had fallen on hard times. Today, it continues to suffer from generations of intentional neglect: infrastructural disinvestment, redlining, environmental racism, economic and political marginalization, and, most significantly, land lost to highways and industrial encroachment.9See source.
Proud Clotilda descendants and other current Africatown residents, who over the years have become advocates and activists for spatial justice, now have an incredible opportunity: to leverage the ship to tell their story, to rebuild their community, and to fund their many plans for the future that have been sitting on shelves for decades. This community will continue to dig deep to extract real treasure from its buried past. Finally, Africatown will reap its just rewards. Africatown’s history is too long, rich, and important—not only for its long-standing residents, but for others around the world—to be ignored any longer.
No more denial of the painful past. No more piecemeal approach to cultural heritage planning. No more site control and zoning battles. No more pollution and industrial expansion. No more disinvestment in revitalization. No more contesting the hopes and dreams of Africatown’s descendant community: the heart of the story, and the issue that matters most.
For Africatown, the funding of the community—not the finding of the ship—is the real story.
The Clotilda discovery offers Africatown a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime chance to:
- urge civic single-mindedness in bettering its future,
- challenge public narratives on slavery, incorporating the descendants’ point of view,
- engage descendants in long-overdue dialogue about racial inequities in Mobile,
- discuss the impact of institutional slavery on notions of community equity,
- acknowledge material evidence of the impact of structural racism on community,
- highlight community perseverance in the midst of environmental injustice,
- outline new strategies for reconciliation and economic resurrection,
- commit to comprehensive economic repair for this beloved community,
- launch The Africatown International Design Idea Competition to create a catalogue of design ideas, and
- design, develop, and invest in Africatown as a cultural heritage site
It is time to put crucial community-driven development documents into play:
- the National Register of Historic Places Designation (2012),
- the Africatown Neighborhood Plan (2016),
- the Africatown Connections Blueway Project (2016),10Learn more.
- Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites: A Rubric of Best Practices Established by the National Summit on Teaching Slavery (2018), and
- the City of Mobile’s United Development Code (proposed 2020).11Learn more.
The Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation, through a 2020 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is poised to organize the community around these plans. Together with ideas developed through The Africatown International Design Idea Competition, these actions, reports, and design processes will comprise a compelling catalogue of community-based advocacy tools for the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation and other community development groups.
Recently, Africatown has been in the news, creating opportunities to leverage exposure. Examples include:
- Africatown named one of the United Nation’s 54 slave Sites of Memory,
- CNN reporter Anderson Cooper’s 60 Minutes profile of Africatown,
- National Geographic’s February 2020 cover story “Last Journey into Slavery”
- Actor Samuel L. Jackson’s recent docuseries Enslaved, which featured Africatown in Episode Four,
- Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots, which featured a discussion of drummer Questlove’s connection to Africatown through his Clotilda African ancestor, Charlie Lewis
- Rapper/actor Common’s purchase of the film rights for Barracoon,
- Ryan Coogler, director of the movie Black Panther, being made aware of AIA/NOMA’s sponsorship of The Africatown International Design Idea Competition at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019, where Coogler was the keynote speaker on the importance of design and notions of Wakanda as the new “African utopia.”
… Indeed, the whole world is watching.
Politics shapes policy, and policy impacts each and every one of this report’s five focus areas. Put simply, all social inequities are politically determined. Thus, the community must continue to study and harness political processes to implement more equitable conditions in Africatown.
Africatown once consisted of 14 distinct neighborhoods—and then came the construction of the Interstate 165 bypass, the widening of Bay Bridge Road, and the loss of land through rezoning and industrial takeover. Since 1970, the number of neighborhoods has been cut mercilessly in half, leaving only memories of New Quarters, No Man’s Land, Tin Top Alley, Graveyard Alley, Pecan Orchard, Plum Orchard, and The Stockyard. Today’s Africatown comprises Hog Bayou, Plateau, Magazine Point, Green’s Alley (Slave Quarters), Happy Hills, Kelly Hills, and Lewis Quarters. The Africatown story, if not its landholdings, blankets an area of approximately 2,000 disconnected acres, reaching from Mobile through Chickasaw to Prichard.
While only a few miles from downtown Mobile, the neighborhood and its residents have long been isolated by these transportation and land-use decisions. In the past, local government and business have made few long-term, ongoing financial commitments to save Africatown from slow disintegration. Local industry, encroaching ever more on the community’s residential areas, continues to pollute.
Some in Mobile say Africatown’s blight is an embarrassment to the city. It’s even been a source of discomfort for some descendants, who did not want to be defined as “African ‘savages’ or once-enslaved people,” according to Clotilda descendant Joycelyn Davis. Nevertheless, descendant community members have reached heroic milestones through activism by unveiling history, battling industry, and speaking truth to power. And others with no direct genealogical or historic connection to Africatown have also dedicated themselves to the cause of social and environmental justice in Africatown. In both of these groups and beyond, there is excitement about Clotilda, and rightly so: it will spur major economic development plans for tourism in Alabama, and, hopefully, in Africatown as well.12Learn more in the Birmingham Times and from CBS news affiliate WKRG News 5, Mobile.
The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) has legal oversight of the Clotilda, the result of winning an admiralty claim over the wreckage in an April 2020 district court decision. Thus, the sunken vessel’s remains are a publicly owned resource of the State of Alabama. In its 2021 budget, the State appropriated $1 million to the AHC to begin preservation efforts through water archaeology and engineering. The AHC, along with the State Historic Preservation Office and Department of Tourism, have vested interests in promoting the ship, as does Visit Mobile, the local tourism agency. Both the Mobile County Commission and City Council have donated funds to build the Heritage House, a new, 5,000-square-foot museum in Africatown, which will hold some Clotilda artifacts. Settlement money of $3.58 million from the 2010 BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill lawsuit will soon jumpstart design, programming, and construction of the Africatown Welcome Center at the edge of the historic African burial ground called The Plateau Cemetery. Other significant funds earmarked for repair of the community and Clotilda‘s archaeological exploration, excavation, and presentation include $500,000 from Congress and contributions from other private and public sources.
The Case for Collaboration
The Clotilda discovery is a maritime breakthrough that has captivated major public and private investors. All are convinced that this “last slave ship” discovery will soon boost Mobile’s tourism industry by millions of dollars. But millions of dollars for whom? Africatown residents anxiously insist on a place at the profit table whenever and wherever public or private decisions are made about their history, their heritage, their land, and “their boat.”
The Office of the Mayor spearheads collaborations between the City of Mobile and stakeholders of the Africatown community. It has held private meetings with Africatown groups and started public briefings about decisions made by various government agencies. Officials say their purpose is to build the capacity of Africatown by increasing two-way communication with the community (through quarterly community meetings; and monthly meetings with four Africatown organizations and three Africatown historic churches) on the need to build a strategic framework to focus revitalization on four areas: infrastructure, environment, engagement, and economic development.
In December 2020, Mobile’s City Council approved a $190,000 contract with Visit Mobile and SCADPro, Savannah College of Art and Design’s collaborative business innovation studio, to design, develop, and promote tourism assets related to the Clotilda discovery. Council members supported the request, in part, due to the 60 Minutes report and the intense interest it generated, along with hope for post-pandemic tourism. Visit Mobile CEO David Clark estimates that tourism assets related to Africatown could attract 1 million visitors a year.13See source. His team and SCADPro’s students and faculty are currently working closely with Africatown leaders and Clotilda descendants to create:
- a 17-minute film highlighting the Clotilda journey and its trafficking of 110 enslaved Africans, to be shown at Mobile’s GulfQuest museum, where tourists will then be able to board water tours up the Mobile River to the Clotilda archaeological site near Twelve Mile Island,
- immersive experiences for tourists visiting various locations in Africatown, and
- wayfinding and other design collateral.
Once the material is reviewed and approved by the community, these aspects of the tourism project will launch this summer.
The Mayor’s Office has also just recently committed the resources of its Innovation Team (I-Team) to Africatown as a special project, namely, to assist Africatown leaders with their vision for the community. Initiated in 2014 through a $1.6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the I-Team uses a data-driven process to help department leaders assess problems, design and implement new, more responsive interventions, develop partnerships, and deliver results that improve citizens’ lives in measurable ways. Tackling neighborhood blight has been one of its main focuses.
While Africatown leaders, residents, descendants, and supporters are ecstatic about these initiatives and the newfound attention given to their community, they are not quite sure how their story will be told—and by whom. Despite some briefings, Africatown community leaders have not been fully involved in creating plans for any Clotilda artifact inventories, narratives for exhibitions, or the architectural designs for the many interpretive sites. Thus far, the AHC has tapped the History Museum of Mobile to curate the Heritage House exhibitions with Clotilda artifacts on loan from the State. Many residents are concerned that these exhibitions will center primarily on the Clotilda. Discussions of a “boat-centric” narrative have sounded the alarm and ignited a sense of urgency in the community, now organized around and committed to telling its own Africatown story: past, present, and future.
Africatown leaders have organized two 501(c)3 organizations within the past two years to protect their stories from being rewritten for “boat-centric” tourist infotainment purposes only: The Africatown Preservation Heritage Foundation and the Clotilda Descendants Association. They are asking for: a full citizen engagement process with open dialogue on how Clotilda artifacts will be interpreted and displayed in the Heritage House and in the new Africatown Welcome Center, near the sacred cemetery where their Clotilda ancestors are buried; and a comprehensive economic development plan that outlines: a tourism cost-benefit-revenue analysis; a capital infrastructure budget; and a community benefits memorandum of agreement between the community and all tourism stakeholders.
With one collective and decided voice, this strong activist community is demanding that the making of Africatown itself be the focus of this truly wondrous story of survival. African American people do not need others to tell our story. We have our own stories to tell through living descendants and the multiple voices of the most culturally competent. It is we who will call forth the “shout out” for truth and justice, for reconciliation and regeneration, for resurrection and repair.
NOW IS THE TIME TO PUT A CROWN ON AFRICATOWN.