Alabama’s Africatown Houses Artifacts About the City’s Slaves of the Past

Charles Hope, who was born in Africatown, Ala., poses in the "den," a building which houses artifacts about the communitys past. (Matthew Teague/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Charles Hope, who was born in Africatown, Ala., poses in the “den,” a building which houses artifacts about the communitys past. (Matthew Teague/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

For miles, north of downtown Mobile, industrial compounds march along the Mobile River. Enormous paper mills, oil companies, shipyards stand shoulder to shoulder. But hidden within them, there’s something much smaller and older: a place called Africatown.

The community is largely forgotten now, a collection of rotting shotgun houses. When it does come up in conversation — when giving directions forces people to reference the Africatown bridge, for instance — Alabamans wince with embarrassment, as though by saying the name out loud they are participating in a ghetto experiment started by racist ancestors. Nothing could be more wrong.

“We remember,” Charles Hope said recently, standing in a small, brick building full of Africatown artifacts. Hope is 72 years old and was born in Africatown. Not at a Mobile hospital, he noted, but “at the house.”

Residents here call the brick building “the den,” and they speak of it with reverence; as the industrial world closes in on Africatown, the den houses evidence of the origins of the community. Hope picked up a photograph with the care most people might reserve for an ancient religious manuscript. “Cudjo,” he said — a silver-haired black man. “Cudjo was one of our top slaves.”

Top slaves?

“Oh, yes. And the last.”

Even though Southern plantation owners held and traded slaves long after, the U.S. Congress made the importation of new slaves from Africa illegal in 1807. But half a century later, the story goes, a wealthy local ship builder named Tim Meaher made a bet over drinks with Northern friends: He could ship a boatload of Africans right into Mobile Bay without a problem.

So in 1859, Meaher’s two-masted schooner, the Clotilde, sailed to West Africa, where the king of Dahomey — now called Benin — sold him 130 slaves, including Cudjo. By the time the Clotilde made it back to the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. federal authorities were on the lookout.

The ship’s captain transferred his human cargo to a riverboat in Mobile Bay and set fire to the Clotilde to destroy evidence of its purpose. From the riverboat, the slaves were distributed to masters throughout the Mobile area. They were freed six years later with the end of the Civil War.

The people brought across the Atlantic on the Clotilde reunited and settled north of Mobile, and called their community Africatown. They spoke their own language, followed their own customs and, above all, worked to stay self-sufficient. They used African gardening techniques, for instance, to feed themselves and their families without depending on anyone outside their small patch of land.

That’s still going on.

After he locked the door to the den, Hope drove his old pickup truck to visit his friends Ronald Perine and Willie Jones. Ronnie and Junebug, people call them. He finds them where they spend all day, most days: on a strip of land under high electrical cables, strung tower to tower across Africatown. Long ago — longer than anyone can remember — the men of Africatown struck a deal with Alabama Power to farm the land under the cables. It provided them food, and saved the energy company the cost of maintaining the land.

The men divided up the strip into half-acre plots, where they farmed corn, peppers, sugar cane and anything else that would grow. Jones has been gardening here for 43 years. He started as a teenager. “This is my food supply,” he said. “I figure I’ve got maybe one or two more good years at it.”

Perine laughed. “You’ve got 10 more years and you know it!”

The sound of a train whistle cut into their conversation, ending any illusion that they were farmers on open land. The electrical cables swayed overhead, and paper mills with their tall smokestacks and strange smells loomed beyond the end of the garden.

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Source: Los Angeles Times | Matthew Teague

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