NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, October 17th. So glad you’ve joined us today! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A visit to an Alabama town founded by the last African slaves brought to America.
WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown has the story of Africatown.
AUDIO: [Sound of bells ringing]
MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: In a grass-covered courtyard, Darron Patterson and Jocelyn Davis stand shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other men and women. In their hands, tiny silver bells. Every ring marks the memory of the men and women who came before them.
DAVIS: I am a direct descendant of Charlie Lewis, sixth generation.
PATTERSON: Who was your relative? Pollee Allen. I’m his great-great grandson. Cooply was his Africa name. He was one of the leaders of Africatown.
Africatown is a small community north of Mobile, Alabama. It was founded by Davis and Pattersons’ ancestors, the last group of Africans to be kidnapped and enslaved in America. Today the descendants of those men and women are participating in the Africatown Healing Day Bell ceremony.
PATTERSON: They were brought here against their will. They burned the boat, the Meaher’s, so they couldn’t get back. And they had the wherewithal to say, ok, let’s do this. And they formed this community.
The U.S. Congress made importing slaves illegal in 1807. But in 1860, Timothy Meaher, a wealthy landowner and shipbuilder secretly chartered a ship named Clotilda and smuggled a cargo of Africans into Mobile Bay. To hide the crime, Meaher burned, exploded and sunk the Clotilda in the Mobile River. Most of the Africans became Meaher’s property. When slavery ended in 1865, the freed slaves bought land from the Meaher family and established Africatown. For the next century, Jocelyn Davis says the town grew and thrived.
DAVIS: Well there were barber shops. There was a grocery store, a washer and dryer. There was a post office. We really didn’t have to go outside the community for anything.
That all began to change in the late 1960s.
WOMACK: Let me get you to pass that over to me please. Yes sir.
Joe Womack is a fourth generation Africatown resident. Wearing a white T-shirt with his hometown written across his chest, the Marine veteran pulls me and my husband away from the bell ringing ceremony.
BROWN: So where are we going?
WOMACK: We are going to take a quick tour around Africatown, the perimeter.
As we drive off in his black pick up truck, Womack points to a vacant lot, where an elementary school once stood.
WOMACK: That’s the school that the slaves established. Did you go there? Yes, I went there.
Womack says this community once overflowed with children.
WOMACK: That house right there may have had eight kids, the house next to it may have had six, the house next to it may have had nine. And so three or four houses, you got three baseball teams.
As we continue down the narrow streets, more vacant and overgrown lots. Some houses are still standing, but with peeling paint and boarded up windows.
WOMACK: I’m just going to ride down this street here real quick to give you an example of some of the things we’re facing. Most of these houses were built in the 20s and 30s. This house…this lady just died. So we need to get somebody in there or it’s going to fall in.
Womack turns onto Center Street.
WOMACK: Ok, you want to see where I was born?
He points to an old shed that was once a garage. Above that garage was a studio apartment.
WOMACK: My older brother and I were born there. My great-granddaddy’s house was right there. It’s gone. That’s where my mamma was born.
As we round the corner, we pass by the town’s active community garden. Womack says it’s at least six acres.
BROWN: And what do you plant?
WOMACK: You see a lot of sugar canes up here. A lot of greens, cabbage, tomatoes, hot peppers, beans, peas.
Looming over the sugar cane and the cabbage is a rusted shell of what was once Africatown’s biggest employer.
WOMACK: Across the street, International Paper. They had a big expansion in 1945. That’s where the community really swelled up with people.
As industry and local businesses began leaving Africatown, jobs were eliminated and families moved away to find other opportunities. But the churches in the community stayed.
WOMACK: And this is the church they established, Union Baptist Church. So the slaves established this church? Right, right.
Not far from that red-brick church is an empty field. Perched on top of the hill sits a simple, red and grey brick chimney. It’s not hard to imagine the hands that built it.
WOMACK: That’s the only thing that remains from the slavery era.
Below the chimney, a mural of the Clotilda. Earlier this year, a remarkable find – divers uncovered the burned remains of the destroyed vessel. The slave ship is more than likely beyond preservation. However, it’s discovery is raising new hopes for renewing Africatown.
WOMACK: My vision for Africatown is to have all these houses in the community renovated. We want Africatown to be a black cultural heritage destination.
As the tour nears its end, we stop to watch a young mother and her children wait for ice cream and other treats.
AUDIO: What you want? I’m getting bubble gum.
And next to them, a dozen or so boys enjoying a game of touch football.
AUDIO: [Sound of boys rough housing]
A page from Africatown’s history and a hopeful glimpse into its future.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown reporting from Mobile, Alabama.