Descendants of Alabama’s Africatown persist despite industrial pollution struggles

The daily reminders of Africatown’s complex history can be seen several times a day, as trains slowly roll past the dilapidated homes, empty, overgrown lots and pockmarked streets that were once bustling with life and industry. 

Those same trains have been the lifeblood of Gulf Coast communities for almost two centuries, helping bring large businesses to the region while creating thousands of jobs. But for the people of Africatown, the much-needed jobs have been a double-edged sword, leading to a community that has benefited and been ravaged over the years by industrial pollution.

A unique American community established by Africans

During the mid 20th century, Africatown flourished. As many as 12,000 people lived in the community, which was established by formerly enslaved Africans who were freed at the end of the Civil War. 

The town’s founders came to the United States unwillingly in 1860, all chained and below-deck on the Slave Ship Clotilda after being taken from the Yoruba region of Africa. Their kidnapping and enslavement took place 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade had been outlawed in 1807.

But remaining in the United States after slavery was abolished was never their first choice. After emancipation, the freed slaves wanted to return home to what is now modern day Benin on the West Coast of Africa, but they didn’t have the money or the logistical knowhow, according to the nonfiction book “Barracoon.” 

In the historical retelling, author Zora Neale Hurston details the lives of the freed individuals. She derived the information from her interviews in 1927 with Africatown resident Cudjo Lewis, thought for many years to be the last living person in the U.S. who had been enslaved in the Civil War era. (Another Africatown resident, Redoshi, died two years after Lewis in 1937. She was 12 when she was enslaved on the Clotilda voyage.) “Barracoon” was published in 2018, nearly 60 years after Hurston’s death.

With no resources to return home to Africa, the formerly enslaved people turned in desperation to the same man who illegally enslaved them. Timothy Meaher, was a wealthy slave trader, landowner and businessman. His family is still prominent in Mobile today. 

They asked Meaher to help them return home. He refused. They then asked for free land in exchange for the years of free labor they had given Meaher. He refused again. 

Eventually, Meaher agreed to sell them the land where Africatown was established.

As news of the settlement spread throughout the South, Africatown’s numbers swelled when other freed slaves arrived. The town became a place where Africans and African Americans lived together. The community survived the industrial revolution, the great depression and the oppression of Jim Crow.  

Today’s residents will proudly tell you it’s one of the only communities in the United States continuously run by Black leadership, and the only one established by Africans. That makes Africatown one of the country’s most unique settlements. 

Around 100 descendants still live in Africatown today. They are working to ensure the stories of their ancestors continue on. A small museum exists in the nearby school where you can see objects that not only explain Africatown’s beginnings but its transition to an established settlement that survives today among the tangle of waterways, busy roads and heavy industry. 

An economic boon but an environmental bane

Starting in the late 1920s, major industries began encircling Africatown, including paper mills, saw mills and chemical plants, much of the development coming within a few feet from homes. The various businesses, some of which still exist today, brought thousands of jobs to the area and Africatown blossomed. Grocery stores, barbers shops, bars and social clubs sprang up and were filled with workers who for the first time had disposable money to spend. 

In the mid- to late-1900s, the nearby I-65 interstate was built and roads in and around Africatown became busier and busier with wealth-creating commerce. The Africatown

bridge was opened in 1991, offering another connection between Mobile and Baldwin County. Trucks trundled through the town carrying logging wood from Alabama’s sprawling forests. Workers, especially at the paper mills, had secured jobs with decent pay. 

But it didn’t last.

“It’s sort of like a double edged sword,” Lister Portis, a resident of Africantown said in a March 2019 interview with “When industry was here the community flourished because the people living here were employed at those various businesses, but at the same time we had to live with the fallout from those industries such as pollution and noise.”

The first industrial departures began in the 1970s and Africantown’s population began to plummet. The biggest blow came in the late ‘90s when the International Paper plant left the area and took with it thousands of jobs. 

Today around 2,000 people live in Africatown, according to census estimates. 

“When those industries did leave the area it was not economically good for the community because jobs were lost and people moved out of the community, and supporting businesses that surrounded the community left because they were dependent on the workers from the paper mill to purchase their goods.”

The remnants of the old paper mills are still clearly visible, existing as a desolate industrial wasteland. They are a symbol of Africatown’s more lucrative past and a reminder of a town that was forced to balance the need for jobs with the heavy pollution that decades later would bring its own personal challenges for many of its residents. 

Cancer rates are high in Africatown. Many of the residents believe this was a product of paper mills and other chemical producing industries. 

More than a thousand residents tried to sue International Paper in Spring 2017, claiming in their lawsuit that the plant released cancer-causing dioxins and furans into the air, ground, and water in amounts that exceeded EPA limits, according to an account of the lawsuit by the Equal Justice Initiative

Speaking to the Guardian in 2018, Africatown resident Patricia Dock said the pollution was so thick at times, “You couldn’t see three feet in front of you. New cars would rust out within a few years. Airborne pollution would cover the small vegetable gardens many families kept. You’d wash it off and eat it. You didn’t have anything else.”

The lawsuit contends that International Paper left many of the pollutants in the ground when it left over twenty years ago. In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that a dozen dangerous chemicals were found in the air in Africatown, according to local court filings.

The lawsuit was dismissed in November 2020. 

Honoring the past while fighting for a clean future

While many of the industries that border Africatown and its parent city, Prichard, are unlikely to be moved in the immediate future, there are some promising developments in the works that could help rejuvenate the community. 

In June of this year, plans for what’s known as the Africatown Mile were released, according to The hope is that the proposed cultural mile will include the establishment of an Africatown Heritage House as the first showcase of artifacts from the slave ship Clotilda, and the design of a long-awaited multimillion-dollar Africatown Welcome Center.

Those efforts are being led by Vickii Howell and Renee Kemp-Rotan. Howell is the CEO of M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that builds collaborative partnerships with businesses, governments and other nonprofits. Kemp-Rotan is an architect and urban planner, and currently serves as the director of grants and special projects with the City of Birmingham. The local community will also be heavily involved.

The welcome center would be positioned opposite the Africatown cemetery, where Cudjo Lewis is buried. 

In May 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency selected Mobile as one of its brownfield grant recipients. The $300,000 grant will be focused on cleaning up former industrial and housing sites in Africatown. 

A local environmental group known as CHESS also exists in Africatown, led by Joe Womack. Although many of the polluting companies have left, many remain, according to Womack. 

“[Africatown] has developed its own community plan,” Womack wrote in a recent blog post. “Its rich history has been featured in numerous reports by media outlets around the world. And it has organized to advocate for its future and to ensure that future generations are able to continue to live and thrive in the historic community. 

“But despite that progress, Africatown remains an environmental justice community, overburdened by polluting industries and often overlooked by local political leaders.”

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