Their ancestors survived slavery. Can their descendants save the town they built?

Africatown, Alabama, has fallen on hard times, but residents are finding hope in their heritage.

Photograph by Elias Williams, National Geographic
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Lorna Gail Woods, 70, is a fifth-generation resident of Africatown. Her great-great grandfather, Charles Lewis, was captured in West Africa and shipped to Alabama in 1860 aboard the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to U.S. shores.
Photograph by Elias Williams, National Geographic

Their ancestors survived slavery. Can their descendants save the town they built?

Africatown, Alabama, has fallen on hard times, but residents are finding hope in their heritage.

It’s cold and gray outside the historic Mobile County Training School, but inside it’s as warm as an Alabama family reunion. More than 200 people have come together for the first gathering of the descendants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to bring African captives to U.S. shores in July 1860.

After being freed by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War, more than 30 of the Africans settled among the woods and marshes of nearby Magazine Point in north Mobile. Blending African traditions with American folkways, they built houses, planted gardens, tended livestock, hunted, fished, and farmed. They founded a church and the first black school in Mobile—which, with the help of Booker T. Washington, became the Mobile County Training School. Together they created a tight-knit, self-reliant community that took care of its own. It came to be known as Africatown.

“This little community was self-sustaining,” says Darron Patterson, a descendant of founder Pollee Allen. Patterson attended the training school in the 1960s before moving to Detroit to work as a sportswriter. “We had everything we needed right here,” he says. “This school taught us to be viable women and viable men. These folks had it going on.”

His words echo throughout the day as representatives from five of the original families take the microphone and speak about their past, their present, and their hopes for the future.

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Home to some 12,000 people during its heyday in the 1960s, Africatown's population has fallen to less than 2,000. It once boasted several stores, gas stations, and barber shops. Now heavy industries surround the community, while many houses are unoccupied or in disrepair.

Lorna Woods grew up in Green’s Alley behind the Union Baptist Church. The houses there were squeezed so close together, she recalls, “we could reach out the window and hand two slices of bread to the home next door.”

Sometimes those gifts were sorely needed. If no smoke was rising from a neighbor’s chimney late in the afternoon, it meant they had no food for supper, Woods says. Soon enough they’d find a bag of groceries on the porch.

Since those days the population of Africatown has plummeted—from about 12,000 in the 1960s to less than 2,000 today. Only half of the homes are occupied, and many abandoned dwellings are dilapidated or falling down. The Josephine Allen housing project in Happy Hills was home to hundreds of families in the 1970s. It closed years ago and sits empty and ransacked on a knoll overlooking the Mobile River.

“I’m 70 years old,” Woods says, “and I still have in my heart a dream that our town will one day have stores and shops and gas stations again.”

It’s a dream many in the community share, but the City of Mobile seems to have another, more industrial vision. According to a recruiting brochure produced by Alabama Power and the Chamber of Commerce, Africatown is part of Alabama’s Chemical Corridor, a 50-mile stretch of river that’s home to 26 major chemical companies.

Big industry began moving into the neighborhood in the 1920s, and during its boom years the area was home to three paper mills, a massive sawmill and lumber yard, and a tank farm with a dozen or so hulking oil and gasoline storage tanks. The four-lane Africatown-Cochran bridge, completed in 1991, was thrust through the heart of the business district, dividing the community and destroying local shops and stores.

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Located on Magazine Point in the middle of Africatown, the Kimberly-Clark paper mill (formerly Scott Paper) is one of three large paper mills that dominated the community for decades and the only one still in operation. "A lot of my family died from cancer," says Michael Ellis, 63, who worked at Scott Paper for 15 years. “I’m a cancer sufferer too.”

 

The large industries provided good jobs, but they were a mixed blessing, says Michael Ellis, 63, who worked at Scott Paper for 15 years. His family had a big house on Bay Bridge Road, not far from one of the three paper mills that for decades released thousands of pounds of chloroform, a known carcinogen, into the air.

“When I was a kid and all the paper mills were going, they were making a lot of people sick,” says Ellis, another descendant of Pollee Allen. “The smoke from those stacks would eat the paint off cars, so you know it wasn’t good for people. A lot of my family died from cancer.” Ellis himself is now fighting kidney cancer.

The giant International Paper mill was located near the training school. It closed in 2000 and the company bulldozed the plant. Residents are now suing the company for failing to remove all the pollutants from the site.

Joe Womack is one of several local activists who envision a cleaner, healthier future for the community, and who believes Africatown’s unique past can help revitalize its economy.

“The city hasn’t taken care of the community because they want to industrialize the whole area,” Womack says. “They just want to make money, but they could make money with tourism. We just have to head them the right way.”

A recent proposal to build 40 more tanks to store tar sand oil from Canada failed for a variety of reasons, including local opposition. The community has also been awarded $3.5 million from the BP Deepwater Horizon legal settlement to rebuild a visitor center destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. There, tourists will learn the story of the last American slave ship and the resilient souls who founded Africatown.

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Descendants of Charlie Lewis gather for a family portrait in Africatown, not far from “Lewis Quarters,” where their family first put down roots as free Americans. More than 200 people from all over Mobile gathered to hear the descendants’ stories. “I never in a million years thought it would be that big,” says event organizer Joycelyn Davis, second from left. “It was amazing! We have to do it again next year.”

Last year the Alabama Historical Commission partnered with the underwater archaeology firm Search, Inc., and the National Geographic Society to study a section of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta where the Clotilda is believed to have been burned and scuttled. Last summer marine archaeologists surveyed the area and located 18 objects of interest, including the remains of sunken ships. Analysis of their finds is ongoing, says James Delgado, leader of the Search team. (Related: "Expedition Hopes to Solve Mystery of Last American Slave Ship.")

“People have been searching for Clotilda since 1860, and the only way to find it is through a careful and systematic survey,” Delgado says. “We promised everyone in the community that we’d leave no stone unturned, and that’s what we’re in the middle of doing.”