A com­mu­nity to re­mem­ber

Descen­dants of Amer­ica’s last slaves pre­serve their land and his­tory

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - matthew.teague@la­times.com with Matthew Teague

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.

Per­ine shook his head. “It’s been an on­go­ing fight to keep the big in­dus­tries out,” he said. Africa­town’s res­i­dents thought that fight was over in 2012, when the com­mu­nity was placed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. But last year, he said, they re­al­ized oth­er­wise, when the Plains All Amer­i­can oil com­pany ar­rived to reroute a pipe through Africa­town.

“It hap­pened so fast. One day we came out to work, and they had equip­ment and ma­chines lined up, dig­ging day and night, with se­cu­rity,” Per­ine said. Res­i­dents came out to protest with signs and slo­gans, but the work went ahead. “That pipe­line started way up in Canada. There was no way they were go­ing to let it get stopped in Africa­town.”

Cleon Jones grew up in Africa­town and went on to play base­ball for the “Mir­a­cle Mets,” who won the World Se­ries in 1969. He said Africa­town’s pop­u­la­tion was about 4,000 when he was a young man. It has since dwin­dled to less than half of that, stran­gled by the industrial com­plexes that rose up around it.

“As far as I’m con­cerned they never did any­thing but dump on us,” he said, list­ing spe­cific toxic spills that were never cleaned up. The cleanup would have cost the com­pa­nies too much, he said, so they just closed up and moved on — only to be re­placed by new mills and man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“There is some good on the hori­zon though,” Jones said. This month, the Mo­bile City Coun­cil voted to spend $100,000 on a plan to re­vi­tal­ize three ne­glected ar­eas, in­clud­ing Africa­town.

“Ul­ti­mately, we want to bring in some tourism,” he said. “We have some real his­tory.”

Trav­el­ers, Jones hopes, might visit the burial marker of Cudjo, Amer­ica’s fi­nal African slave when he died in 1935.

The stone bear­ing his name reads, “Last sur­vivor.”

Matthew Teague Los An­ge­les Times

CHARLES HOPE, a na­tive of Africa­town, which lies a few miles north of Mo­bile along the Mo­bile River, in “the den.” The small, brick build­ing is full of ar­ti­facts that serve as ev­i­dence of the com­mu­nity’s ori­gins.

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