A Visit: Africatown

by: cathy foreman

After hearing about the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Alabama earlier this year, I knew I wanted to visit. So I purchased my tickets for the Memorial Holiday Weekend. Then Zora Neale Hurston’s book, “Barracoon” was released. It’s the story or more like the biography of a man, Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis, the last living survivor of the middle passage. The slave trade had been outlawed, but a group of white men, initiated by Timothy Meaher and based on a bet, sailed to Africa, kidnapped and illegally transported the last group of captives (120 african men and women) and enslaved them. Once I started reading that, I knew we had to include a trip to Africatown while in Alabama.

Friday morning we set out to Mobile. More specifically we were headed to a piece of history that I don’t think too many people know about; that is until the release of Zora’s book. What I read intrigued me enough to want to visit and see for myself. I’m like that; curious about our history…what we did, who we were and are, where we come from. So any opportunity to see that up close and personal, I take advantage.

I didn’t know what to expect, but we drove right through the little township and I hadn’t even realized. We passed by a mural of the Clotilde, the last slave ship, but I thought that was just a marker and we breezed by. Then we reached a point where my mom and I looked at each and said, “Was that it?” So we turned around. I told her, based on some web searches I had done, there was supposed to be a sign, kind of like those “Welcome to XYZ Town,” but I hadn’t seen that. And as we drove back to the area where I had seen the mural, poof there was the sign. When we drove by, we had only seen the back side of the sign, not the colorful front side. So we turned into what looked like a small community and drove through what I can only explain as a community forgotten.

Again, I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for what we saw; a hand full of nice brick homes, but a host of dilapidated, condemned and burned homes. My mom said, “I hope there is no one living in these.” As we drove through, we saw some elders sitting outside on a stoop, an elder gentlemen standing outside of a home just kinda of doing what older people do; piddling in the yard. We also saw some sort of training center that looked to be a school at some point, but has since become vacant and run down. One thing we saw that made me feel some kind of way was a huge sign on one property stating that it had been acquired by the state due to non-payment of back taxes. Honestly all I could think about was the appropriation of this little piece of history by any means possible.

 L-R: Unknown, Miss Edwina, Miss Bernadette, Miss Sarah by Cathy Foreman
L-R: Unknown, Miss Edwina, Miss Bernadette, Miss Sarah

As we made our way back through, those same elders we saw earlier were still on the stoop, so I stopped and asked if I could pull in, which they welcomed. Walking up to the porch, I got a sense of déjà vu. I’m from the country and that is something true to country living. I felt as if they could have been family and I could easily see my grandmother, who is deceased, sitting there welcoming someone like myself on up to the porch. I introduced myself and we just started to talk. Miss Bernadette, Miss Sarah and Miss Edwina were so warm. I told them where I was from and why I had come. I asked about any remnants of the time or any stories. Sadly there aren’t any artifacts and barely any remnants from a not-so-distant past. The homes have all been built over and thus that part of history is long gone. As for the stories, many of them are lost with the passing of the many elders who possessed that knowledge. Truth be told, a lot of the extended families have moved away, which I completely understand coming from a much more rural area myself, and thus the stories have as well. In retrospect, I should have recorded my conversation, but I was so engrossed that it completely slipped my mind. I was able to find out about the church and Cudjoe’s memorial, the mural with a hidden gem was right above it … the remnants of the last original home from the time. I even met the great great grandson, Karliss Hinton, of Fannie Keeby, the daughter of one of the kidnapped Africans turned slave, who settled in Africatown, now Plateau. He….is a character.

Across the street from the church is the cemetery, which houses most, if not all of the original settlers of the community and their families. Next to that is a newer cemetery. What I couldn’t tell was if it was a part of the Africatown plots or yet another show of land appropriation where whites were now buried. Across from the cemetery is a gated area with letter spelling out AFRICA TOWN on the gates. Inside is the remaining foundation of a building, once a welcome center, and a huge sign that reads “the future home of the Africatown Welcome Center”. Based on what Miss Sarah told me, the community has gotten a grant from the government that is set to “revitalize” the area. This word frightens me when mentioned in the conversation about black communities. It is my sincere hope that this “revitalization” is not an undercover gentrification.

Check back next week for part II, which will highlight the memorial.

Also, please see the article on Barracoon by our partner Tania Lasenburg