AfricatownWednesday, October 12, 2011
This summer, we visited Africatown, outside Mobile; I had read two or three books about it (including Dreams of Africa in Alabama), how it was a community of the last slaves brought to America, and wanted to see what was there. This is how it's described, called at that time 'Afriky Town', in my 1941 WPA book:
...a settlement of Negroes, descendants of the last shipload of slaves brought to the South. Though the importation of slaves had become illegal after 1807, a brisk smuggling trade continued. The War Between the States was threatening when the ship Clothilde arrived in Mississippi Sound from the Guinea coast with a cargo of Negroes. Under the direction of Captain Tim Meaher, wealthy slave trader, she was run up the Mobile river at night. The Negroes were hidden in the delta marshes and the ship was burned but Meaher found it difficult to dispose of his cargo. A few were sent to up-river plantations and some were put to work on the fortifications of Mobile, but the rest were left to shift for themselves. From this group has developed the present community.
The Negroes of Afriky Town have remained pure Guinea stock and still have many customs and beliefs brought from Africa. All of the Clothilde slaves are now dead but their descendants still cultivate small fields and work in the nearby industrial plants. The last of the original slaves, Uncle Cudjo Lewis died in 1935 when, according to his record, he was 105 years old. For 75 years, he lived in a cabin adjoining the Negro Union Baptist Church of which he was a devout member. He could not read or write but he had a remarkable memory and could quote entire chapters of the Bible.
The welcome center which appeared somewhat neglected, above, was closed. Worse yet, there had been vandalism in March:
We were there about two months after the vandalism incident, and there was still a huge damaged piece just on the ground:
There was a part of me compelled to do something -- prop it up, take it to a police station (it just felt so wrong, so disrespectful, to have a piece of art like this, especially something made to honor another person, deserted this way) -- I didn't know what to do. But this had been written about in the Mobile paper back in March, and I remembered that the pictures from the article had this bust in this same place then. Why had no one decided to at least give it shelter in the welcome center, or taken it somewhere in the community for safekeeping?
I searched the paper to see if they had ever followed up with a piece to see if anyone had been arrested, and there was nothing. I can only imagine what the people who had donated the busts back in May 2007, filmmakers Thomas Akodjinou of Benin and Felix Eklu of Togo, were to think of all this.
Back to what AfricaTown is all about. The Library of Congress has a section about communities, and a portion of it about AfricaTown reads:
In a federal court case in 1861, US v. Byrnes Meaher, Timonthy Meaher, and John Dabey, the three were charged with importing 103 natives of Africa for the purpose of slavery in the United States on the schooner Clotilde. The case was dismissed because the Federal Court could not prove the involvement of Timothy Meaher in this plot, but there was a strong implication that the case was dismissed because of the beginning of the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the original group of intended slaves was joined by a number of their fellow tribesmen. For decades they continued speaking their native tongue, had disputes arbitrated by their tribal chieftain, Charlie Poteete, and had their illnesses treated by the African doctor, Jabez. Up until World War II, AfricaTown remained a rather distinct community in Mobile County.
AfricaTown is unique in that it represents a group of Africans who were forcefully removed from their homeland, sold into slavery, and then formed their own, largely self-governing community, all the while maintaining a strong sense of African cultural heritage. This sense of heritage and sense of community continues to thrive today, more than 140 years after the landing of the Clotilde in Mobile Bay.
Cudjo Lewis had been the last survivor of the Clothilde / Clotilde / Clotilda; it was he that rang the bell at the Union Baptist Church (and at one time there had been a bronze bust of him outside this church; it was stolen in 2002, at one point returned, then rejected and left in a garbage bag, and oh it is a whole long story -- see the book Dreams of Africa in Alabama for more):
...which has this marker, mentioning his name:
Booker T. Washington came to visit Cudjo Lewis, as did Zora Neale Hurston. And there's a bit of a problem with ZNH's writings from her interviews, because she wasn't always terribly careful with keeping to the facts and not embellishing or changing or sometimes plagiarizing altogether (see Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography for just one), but interesting nevertheless. In college, I knew nothing of this and thought she was incredible (she really is, anyway) and if Zora hadn't done all the folkways recording work she had done it would have just been lost, lost, lost. All that to say, there are some issues among her interviews with Cudjo Lewis. And there is a manuscript she wrote about him that she wished to have turned into a book called 'Barracoon' but her publisher turned her down and to this day it has never been put into print.
There are more interviews with those who arrived on the Clotilda in Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche.
Cudjo Lewis' monument, called 'burial landmark' in the Old Plateau cemetery, placed primarily by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority:
A 2010 historical monument in the front of the cemetery mentions that the College of William and Mary have sent project members who have done archaeological study here and found the burial sites of other Clotilda survivors. There's more about that here at the W&M site, and here in the Mobile P-R.
The (*wonderful*) Mobile Mardi Gras documentary, The Order of Myths: "...the film captures the excitement and expectations of onlookers as the queens are named. But the narrative takes an unexpected twist when it is revealed that this year’s white Mardi Gras queen, debutante Helen Meaher, is the direct descendent of an outlaw who ran the last slave ship to enter the United States, more than 50 years after a federal ban abolished the slave trade. His ship, the Clothilde, contained unforeseen cargo—the ancestor of the film’s black Mobile Mardi Gras Queen of 2007, Stefannie Lucas. Her forebears fled into the woods outside of Mobile, known as Africatown, rather than be burned alive when the Clothilde ran aground."
This heritage trail around Mobile includes sites in AfricaTown.