This has brought back thoughts of The Atlanta Child Murders. I thought I’d recap what this was for those of us who may not have known.
What became known as “The Atlanta Child Murders” happened in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, when about 29 Black children, teens, and young adults were kidnapped and murdered. A majority of the killings shared common details. In 1979, for instance, Edward Hope Smith, also known as “Teddy”, and Alfred Evans, also known as “Q”, both aged 14 and from the same apartments, disappeared four days apart. Their bodies were both found on July 28 in a wooded area, Edward with a .22 caliber gunshot wound in his upper back. They were believed to be the first victims of the “Atlanta Child Killer”.
On September 4, the next victim, 14-year-old Milton Harvey, disappeared while on an errand to a bank for his mother. He was riding a yellow bike, which was found a week later in a remote area of Atlanta. His body was not recovered until November of 1979.
On October 21, 9-year-old Yusuf Bell went to the store. A witness said she saw Yusuf getting into a blue car before he disappeared. His body was found on November 8 in the abandoned E. P. Johnson elementary school by a school janitor who was looking for a place to use the bathroom. Bell’s body was found clothed in the brown cut-off shorts he was last seen wearing, with a piece of masking tape stuck to them. He had been hit over the head twice and the cause of death was strangulation. Police did not immediately link his disappearance to the previous killings.
On March 4, 1980, the first female victim, 12-year-old Angel Lenair, disappeared. She left her house around 4 pm, wearing a denim outfit, and was last seen at a friend’s house watching Sanford and Son. Lenair’s body was found six days later, in a wooded vacant lot along Campbellton Road, wearing the same clothes she had left home. A pair of white panties that did not belong to Lenair was stuffed in her mouth, and her hands were bound with an electrical cord. The cause of death was strangulation.
I won’t go on as the accounts get more and more disturbing. The FBI joined the multi-agency investigation in 1980. The investigation was closed following the conviction of Wayne Bertram Williams for two of the murders in 1982. After the trial, law enforcement linked Williams to 20 more of the 29 murders. Not all of the missing children have been found and not all the murders were attributed to Williams. Some believe he was falsely accused. Those days, it was hard to know what to believe. Tensions were high and rising with each body found. Hundreds of residents volunteered for a community watch program at schools, playgrounds, and shopping centers. Others took up baseball bats and patrolled the streets.
Children teased each other about getting caught by “The Snatcher” as the assumption was that it was just one killer but officials at the various local, state and federal agencies working the cases couldn’t agree.
In the wake of missing children and young people again, this time in Chicago, it’s imperative that we all be careful. These are dangerous times and it really doesn’t matter where you live. Be careful out there people and keep an attentive eye on your children.
Today, we are taking a look at a woman whose husband we know well. Frederick Douglass is well-known but his first wife is not. For the sake of time, I am combining sources from various articles since I have not had the chance to put something together for you this week. Enjoy.
Frederick and Anna met in 1838, when he still went by the surname Bailey and she by Murray. The daughter of enslaved parents in rural Maryland around 1813, Anna was the first of her siblings to be born free after her parents were manumitted (set free). She lived with her parents until the age of 17, at which point she headed for Baltimore and found work as a domestic helper. Over the years she managed to earn and save money; the vibrant community of more than 17,000 free blacks in the Maryland city organized black churches and schools despite repressive laws restricting their freedoms. When she met Frederick—historians disagree on the when and where their acquaintance occurred, but it may have been in attending the same church—she was financially prepared to start a life with him. But first, he needed freedom.
By borrowing a freedman’s protection certificate from a friend and wearing the disguise of a sailor sewn by Anna, Frederick made his way to New York City by train (possibly spending Anna’s money to buy the ticket, says historian Leigh Fought). Once there, he sent for Anna and they were married in the home of abolitionist David Ruggles. According to Rosetta, Anna brought nearly everything the couple needed to begin their life together: a feather bed with pillows and linens; dishes with cutlery; and a full trunk of clothing for herself.
In 1837, Frederick met a free Black woman, Anna Murray, who was born in 1813. Her parents had been freed before she was born, and Anna worked as a laundress and a housekeeper. Anna used her savings and sold a bed to pay for train tickets for Frederick, which he used to escape to freedom. She also sewed a sailor outfit for him, which he wore as a disguise. Fredrick had tried to escape before, but it was not until Anna helped him that he escaped successfully.
Once Frederick got to New York, Anna joined him and they married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. They had five children together. When they moved to Rochester, New York, she turned their home into an Underground Railroad stop, providing shelter for runaway slaves en route to Canada.
As Frederick became more involved in activism, their relationship became more strained. Anna could barely read and write, and felt out of place among Frederick’s friends. His friends, most of whom were highly educated and intellectual, openly looked down on Anna (to his credit, he vigorously defended her against any who suggested she was not a worthy wife). Anna enjoyed being part of the Black community in New Bedford, but in 1847 Frederick moved the family, and as his circle of friends widened, hers diminished. Anna was also tormented by rumors that Frederick had affairs during his many travels. On two occasions, Frederick had women he was rumored to be sleeping with move into Anna’s house, causing controversy between the couple and within Frederick’s political community.
While Frederick began his climb as an abolitionist orator, Anna cared for their children, born between 1839 and 1849: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie. In 1847, they moved to Rochester, New York, where Frederick began publishing his newspaper, the North Star. The gulf between Anna and Frederick widened over the years; she could barely read and write and was rarely a part of his activist life and growing circle of prominent white and black abolitionist colleagues. After the death of their youngest child, Annie, in 1860, Anna’s health steadily deteriorated. She died on August 4, 1882 at their home, Cedar Hill, across from Washington, D.C. She was carried back to Rochester, New York, where she was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
One year after Anna’s death, Frederick remarried. His second wife was Helen Pitts. She was born in 1838. Her parents were abolitionists, and she was an ardent abolitionist and suffragette. In 1880, her family moved next door to the Douglass family, and Helen assisted Frederick with his work. She also worked as a clerk and co-edited a women’s rights magazine.
Their marriage was quite a scandal. Helen was white and twenty years younger than Frederick. His children felt the marriage disrespected their mother. Frederick and Helen’s friends were shocked because they felt the marriage was too sudden and because they were worried about the race and age differences. Helen’s family cut off contact with her altogether, and their local society was appalled that a black man and white woman were married at all.
Helen Pitts’ response: “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”
Frederick’s response: “This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father.”
EC thoughts: I feel kind of sad for Anna and I can’t help but to wonder why Frederick, intelligent as he was, did not teach her to read and write. Did she not want to learn? Or did he not want to teach her? We can only speculate.
First, I want to say that Birth of a Movement is a good documentary on Netflix and is the inspiration behind this post.
We are familiar with the name W.E.B. Dubois but I do not hear much concerning William Monroe Trotter and that’s a shame. While I do not agree with his dissension with Booker T. Washington (I admire Washington, obviously), I do admire Monroe’s drive to stop a movement that ultimately led to a resurgence and second wave of one of the most terrorist groups in America, The Klu, Klux, Klan.
William Monroe Trotter was an African American newspaper editor and real estate businessman in Boston, Massachusetts born on April 7, 1872, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Raised in Hyde Park, Boston, his father, James, was a writer and former civil rights lieutenant who worked in real estate. Trotter excelled in academics growing up, becoming his predominantly-white high school’s class president and attending Harvard University in the early 1890s. He was a friend of W.E.B. Dubois who also attended Harvard alongside him. The friends graduated in 1895, the same year that Booker T. Washington delivers the famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.
Trotter was an early activist for Black Civil rights and produced similar Civil Rights results in 1915 as that of the 1960s marches. He was an early opponent of Booker T. Washington (sigh… I just think Booker had a point but whatever), and in 1901 founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper, as a vehicle to express that opposition.
In 1905, Trotter joins W.E.B. DuBois in founding the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP. However, Trotter did not agree entirely with the organization. The NAACP’s top officers were white men and it only made sense to Trotter that the National Association for the Advancement of “Colored” People is run and operated by “Colored” people. It was not. The NAACP was founded by Jews and ran by the same. For this, Trotter decided to part with the organization. Instead, he founded his own organization called The National Equal Rights League. He also co-founded the Boston Literary and Historical Association (the oldest nationwide human rights organization founded in Syracuse, New York in 1864 dedicated to the liberation of black people in the United States) with colleague George Forbes and established The Guardian newspaper. The publication pushed for Black equality.
Trotters most famous acts of Civil Rights is his stand against David Wark Griffith’s, landmark film, The Birth of a Nation, a racists play turned movie by author Thomas Dixon. Originally called The Clansmen, the book turned play became a massive bestseller. It also had the endorsement of The White House as it was screened at the house and praised as “History as Lightening” (Wilson).
Trotter began a campaign against Dixon’s play turned film when it opened in Boston in 1910, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. While his protests succeeded in closing the production, The Clansmen changed its name to The Birth of a Nation and in April 1915 was scheduled to open in Boston. Trotter rushed back to lead protests against the film. In April, the Tremont Theatre was denying African American’s admission, to include Trotter. When blacks refused to leave the lobby, plainclothes police moved in, sparking a fight. Trotter and ten others were arrested; other protests took place both inside and outside the theater. It resulted in a mini-riot. Trotter, united with other African-American community members, could not get the film banned in Boston. Interestingly enough, Booker T. Washington dies later this year, November of 1915 in Tuskegee Alabama.
The KKK had a revival for a decade after 1915, especially in industrial cities and the Midwest. In 1919, Trotter appeared at the Paris Peace Conference in an unsuccessful effort to have the organization outlaw racial discrimination. But, in 1921, Trotter was successful in shutting down new screenings of The Birth of a Nation in Boston. He also led demonstrations against events, plays, and films that glorified The Ku Klux Klan. William Monroe Trotter died on April 7, 1934, in Boston.
Far as finances is concerned, it’s still unknown exactly how much The Birth of a Nation grossed, but it did very well in sales. D.W. Griffith is still recognized as the man who pioneered modern cinematic techniques with his use of advanced camera and narrative techniques. Griffith is also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and popularized the use of the close-up shot and his skill is still taught in film school. Meanwhile, in the 1920s, his film The Birth of a Nation continued to spark a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, which produced a second wave in Atlanta, Georgia, inspired by the film. This terrorist organization would go on to terrorize millions of blacks over the years.
Its late but Friday is not over people! Well, not for some of us anyway so we’re going to squeeze this article on in.
Today, we have a special fun fact for you. My maiden name is Hereford and I have a mother, brother, and sisters who still carry this last name. In fact, I’ve met very few people with this name I was not related to. Unlike Johnson, Brown or Jackson (no shade to those with these last names), Hereford is not as common. So when I came across this man online, I was noticeably interested. My mother says that my grandfather, her father, is from Alabama and that Sonnie looks like her dad. This has prompted me to do more research on the man and to plan a visit to Alabama to discover more. It’s possible we had a Civil Rights Activist in the family and didn’t know it. In 1961, Hereford was one of the plaintiffs suing the Huntsville school system to end segregation, and in 1963, his son, Sonnie Hereford IV, was one of the first four black children to enroll in a previously all-white public school in Alabama. But, let’s start from the beginning.
Dr. Sonnie Wellington Hereford III was born on January 7, 1931, in Huntsville, Alabama. The family had no running water or electricity and Sonnie had to walk seven miles to school. The school, next to a garbage dump, didn’t have a library or cafeteria, much like most black schools at the time. Hereford was a farmer but developed a love for education. Even though his school had no library, the teachers were invested in him as they were in all their students. Though lacking in resources, black schooling at the time was exceptional, involving a strong community spirit and discipline. Teachers took on more than just a role as a teacher but they were also mothers, fathers, and mentors. For this, Sonnie received a good education and decided he wanted to become a doctor.
Sonnie graduated first in his class and applied to the University of Alabama for their pre-med program. However, Sonnie’s application was denied because of his color so he enrolled at Alabama A&M University instead. Hereford graduated from A&M in 2 years and went on to receive his medical degree from Meharry Medical College. He began his career at Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville Alabama and went on to play important roles in the struggle for Civil Rights. Not only was he a doctor but he also helped to aid men and women attacked during the Selma to Montgomery march, welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., to the city in 1962 and helped to integrate the city at various establishments. In fact, school desegregation is what Sonnie became most known for.
Sonnie IV was among four children chosen to desegregate schooling in Alabama and on September 3, 1963, Hereford took his six-year-old son to school but they could not get in. Instead, a mob waited for them and none of the other children were admitted to the other schools either. Sonnie didn’t give up, he returned but the school was locked down and guarded every day with armed troops. Eventually, Hereford contacted the federal judge and over time an order was issued to desegregate the schools in Huntsville. On Monday, September 9, 1963, Hereford successfully enrolled his son at Fifth Avenue School making Sonnie Hereford IV the first African-American student admitted to a previously all-white public school in Alabama. That following week, Sunday, September 15, the church bombing occurred in Birmingham killing four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Sonnie died at 85 years old, two weeks before the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Sonnie Hereford Elementary School in Huntsville Alabama, named for him by the Huntsville board of education. The school ranges from Pre-K to sixth grade.
Learn more about Sonnie at the informative video below!
Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday. Today, I’d like all of the women readers to thank Beatrice Kenner. Because of her, we can all breathe a little easier. Men, keep reading at your own risk. Or, go and get your wives and daughters, they’ll want to read this!
Some of the most common forms of protection for women during their cycles were grass, rabbit skins, sponges, rags, menstrual aprons, homemade knitted pads, or other kinds of absorbents. Usually, women used some form of a rag back in the day. This is why “she’s on the rag” is a popular expression used to refer to a woman who is menstruating. Then, here comes Mary to the rescue…
While she did not invent the modern version of the Maxi Pad, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner invented the sanitary belt, the first version of the pad.
Mary was born in Monroe, North Carolina on May 17, 1912 and came from a family of inventors. Her sister invented a children’s board game that explored family ties called “Family Treedition.” Mary’s father Sidney Davidson, patented a pants presser in 1914. According to historian and former U.S. Patent Examiner Patricia Sluby, a maternal grandfather of the daughters was a man of German and Irish descent who invented a tricolor train light. It’s safe to say that inventing things was in Mary’s blood.
Mary is known most for her invention of an early version of the menstrual pad. Many of us are too young to know what the sanitary belt was. The sanitary belt was an actual belt that was used to hold pads in place before the invention of self-adhesive maxi pads.
Mary invented the sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket but the company that showed interest in the pads rejected the invention because Mary was a black woman. For this, the sanitary belt didn’t come into widespread use until 1956, thirty years after its invention. Learning this has taught me the power of patience and how everything comes to be in its time. It may have seemed like a lifetime to Mary but eventually, her invention saw the light of day. Mary received five patents for her invention between 1956 and 1987.
While mostly known for her invention of the sanitary pad, Mary had other groundbreaking inventions like the toilet paper holder and the mounted back scrubber and washer for showers. Mary has been an entrepreneur from the start, operating her own floral business in Washington D.C. when she was not inventing things.
Adhesive Maxi Pads (an adhesive side that stuck to the lining of a woman’s panties, the modern pad) were invented in the 1970s so the sanitary belt did not last very long. Nonetheless, without it, someone would not have thought to make things easier by eliminating the belt and just going with the napkin. If you Google Sanitary Napkins (or talk to your mom or grandmother) you’ll learn that the belt was uncomfortable and inconvenient and while tampons existed, using them for younger women was considered sexually improper. (A pretty good article to study up on the evolution of pads can be found HERE.) But life happens in stages and good things come to be because someone took a risk on something others may not have found useful. Mary’s invention helped women who didn’t want to use tampons to get by and paved the way for all of the pads currently on the market.
With the success of the Black Panther movie based on the super-hero comic, I am re-posting this Black History Fun Fact from two years ago based on real life super-heroes for those of you new to this blog (or who missed it the first time around). To understand our present, we must understand our past so that in the future we do not make the same mistakes. The Black Panther Organization actually did more community-outreach than they did protest. The protest is what we saw the most on television however it is not the bulk of their work. They were not a hate group, they were not supremacists and they were not a “black only” group. The Panthers promoted ALL POWER to ALL PEOPLE with an organization comprised of many nationalities of people.
Has history been accurate in its portrayal of the group affectionately known as The Panthers?
In Whitewashing the Black Panthers, Michael Moynihan argues that PBS’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard for The Revolution, tries to excuse a “murderous and totalitarian cult” saying, “Almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers is ignored or dismissed and no critics of the party are included. The story is told entirely through the testimony of former Panthers and sympathetic historians.”
(Umm, so is every European, Western focused story ever made, but we won’t go there).
For the record, I did not set out to write about The Panthers based on Michael’s article (I actually came across it much later), or because of the documentary. After doing some reading I decided today’s Black History Fun Fact Friday will focus on three basic principles that everyone should by now, understand about The Panthers. But first, we must cover some additional facts.
The Freedom Movement have always been portrayed as a southern only movement on television and even in some books. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia are states where trees no doubt bore the remnants of strange fruit. We could see it on the news, the newspapers, and from the mouths of relatives who grew up there. If we didn’t see it, the whole world did when Chicago native Emmett Till went down south and never came back and the whole world saw the ugly face of America. In that time, I am sure, we all had the same consensus on our hearts (among other things): “If only he’d stayed home, this would not have happened.”
This is because seldom did we then, and even today, hear about the racism and discrimination that took place in Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and California. Many blacks, no doubt, escaped the southern states for better opportunities in the North. Still, even this part of history is only a half-truth as not all blacks left because they did not have.
There were many African American’s who, after slavery, suffered tremendously economically but not all of them. Not every black family sharecrop or endure poverty but many families started their own businesses, educated their own people, and founded their own communities. From the Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Blackdom of New Mexico or the famed Black Wall Street in Tulsa it is clear, not all blacks were financially incapacitated. For this, it is only a half-truth that blacks escaped the south for a better financial and economic opportunity in the North and it is only a half-truth that they all left to escape Jim Crow. In truth, many of us sold what we did have to flee North because we were told (both by whites and black elites) that it was better. Many blacks were told that the North was the land of “Milk and Honey” so we sold our land, packed up our families and left the Jim Crow South only to run into the police brutality of the North.
It was Martin Luther King Jr., who said his trip to Chicago’s segregated Cicero was worse than Alabama and Mississippi. “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” King told reporters. That statement is saying a lot considering what we know about the brutality of these states and had I not been born and raised in the city (Chicago), I’d doubt King’s words were true. But as I was born in Chicago and spent the first nine years of my life in the concentrated poverty-stricken projects of The Robert Taylor Homes on Federal Street, the most segregated and poorest urban city in the United States at the time, I can tell you that what King said was no exaggeration.
The truth is that while many segregationist laws were abolished in the South, poverty increased in the North. Black unemployment was higher in 1966 than in 1954, 32% of Black people were living below the poverty line, 71% of the poor living in metropolitan areas were Black, and by 1968, two-thirds of the Black population lived in ghettos, or impoverished communities, also known as slums. And so, it was for this hushed truth concerning the brutality of northern cities that two young men from Oakland California founded what would one day become the most hated black revolutionary organization of its time.
Founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland California, The Panthers took notice of the police brutality taking place in their own lives and in the lives of members of the black community. They saw black men, and women, being beaten (some of them to their deaths) and nothing being done about it. They saw children who were malnourished because they didn’t have food at home and families denied access to proper medical care and education. Having met at The Meritt Junior College and being active in political movements there, Seale and Newton came together to form the Panthers. Following the passion of men like Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, who were against the passive resistance movements of men like King, Newton, and Seale set out to be examples of what they saw was needed.
This leads me to three basic truths concerning why The Black Panthers were started and while I’m obviously not a black panther or black nationalist enthusiast (nor do I agree with their beliefs), I thought this would be a great way to re-introduce to you what this organization was initially built on and the things that they did that rarely made, and rarely make, the news:
One of the first reasons for the organizing of this group was to assist in the protection of members of the black community. Specifically, the Panthers wanted to protect blacks from police brutality, whether it was literally helping the elderly across the street, being human traffic signals, or literally standing between police and civilians to ensure the laws of California, of the time, were being adhered to. Being students of history and discipline, The Panthers were aware of the laws governing where they lived and they made sure both civilians and the police understood those laws and acted accordingly. Bobby Seale recounts, in Seize The Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party:
“He (Huey) defended himself in court and had beaten a petty theft case, and he was running it down how he got Olsen. Olsen was the dean of Merritt College. Dean Olsen had got up on the stand and testified to the fact that he had called the police in to have Huey P. Newton arrested, and had the police bring Huey to his office because some paddy boy over in the store had accused Huey of stealing a book. Huey explained to me that Olsen had asked him if those were his books. Huey said:
“Yes, this is my property.”
Olsen: “Well, I’ll just keep these books.”
Huey: “No, you won’t keep those books. That’s my property and I’ll keep them myself. You called me in the office for something. I don’t know what you want me for, but I’ll keep my property.” And Huey snatched the books back out of his hand and said, “If you want to arrest me, you’ll have to arrest me, but I’m not going to stand here talking.” And he walked right on out of the office. So, the same thing came up on the stand, and Huey asked Olsen on the stand, “Dean Olsen, why didn’t you have me placed under arrest if you thought I had stolen the books?”
Olsen: “Well, at that time, I just didn’t know my rights as to whether or not I had the right to arrest you.”
Huey: “Mr. Olsen, you’re a dean at a college; have a Ph.D. in education. Here I am a student in the college, learning my rights, and you’ve got a Ph.D., and you tell me you didn’t know your rights?”
(Caution. Dear Young People, I post this excerpt as an example that The Panthers were aware of the laws of their state, not for you to show how hard you are and try and mimic this. You must use wisdom in all that you do. With the number of black men gunned down for nothing, do not try this at home. This was in 1966, this is 2016. I would not want anyone being hurt for trying to mimic the actions of Huey as stated above. It’s important to obey the governing authorities, diffusing the situation if it is at all in your power to do so).
Free Breakfast Program and Medical Care
In 1966, students were not given free lunch like they are given today. Part of that revolution was due to the free breakfast program set in place by The Panthers where they fed children who would otherwise not have anything to eat. The Panthers had a lot to do with why the Public schools offer free lunches to students today. In addition, they implemented their own schools and system of medical care. The Panthers were, in short, of service to their community for no one knows the trouble we see and no one knows our sorrows. Preaching can only go so far, for if a man is hungry physically he won’t hear you spiritually. There must be physical action to accompany the spiritual and that is what The Panthers instilled in their communities: Physical and practical action.
All Power to All People
I do not want this article to be too long as I believe I’ve said enough, but I don’t want to leave without reiterating that despite all the black, The Panthers were not a black only organization. Having recruited members of all nations they recounted repeatedly that they stood for restoring “All power, to all people”. In fact, they were separate from the black nationalist groups often associated with them and conflicted often with them. In his own words, Bobby Seale states: “Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do…Although the Black Panther Party believes in Black nationalism and Black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system and are therefore ineffective.” – Bobby Seale
The truth is indeed stranger than fiction and for that most conscious grassroots organizations have to be deemed cults and militant to prevent, what Cointel pro deems, “the rise of a black messiah”. The Black Panthers were seeking to empower black people and that in itself is dangerous, for in the words of the poet Brook Yung, “They used to put to death people like me.”
I am always fascinated by the all Black communities African Americans have built over the years. It means that we are capable of coming together economically to build something of our own and have been doing so for some time now. Communities like Black Wall Street, Rosewood, Blackdom and Israel Hill are examples. To learn of more communities, visit a recent post 7 Black Communities that Prospered.
On this day, March 2, 1807, The U.S. Congress passed an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States…from any foreign kingdom, place, or country”, banning the Slave Trade. A group of slaveholders then, made a bet that they could still import slaves and could do so without being caught. 110 Africans (Israelites) from the Yoruba Tribe from the interior of Nigeria were taken and held captive aboard the Clotilda, allegedly the last slave ship to bring captives from Africa to America. Led by Timothy Meaher, a shipbuilder and landowner, the ship made it to the port of Alabama in July of 1860. The slaves were removed from the ship and put on a steam river boat and the Clotilda was burned to hide the evidence.
The enslaved were divided between the men who had made the bet but they eventually got caught. Federal Authorities prosecuted the men but the 1861 federal court case of US v. Byrnes Meaher, Timothy Meaher and John Dabey was thrown out because of lack of evidence. After the Civil War Meather freed his slaves and allowed them to work his property. This is the beginnings of the community of Africatown.
The city of Mobile’s Africatown Neighborhood Plan, a blueprint for revitalization and preservation prepared in 2015 and 2016, offers a quick summary of what came next for the community:
“Working in local shipyards and mills, they saved money to buy land including some from their former owners. African Town originally included a 50-acre community in the Plateau area and a smaller one, Lewis Quarters, which consisted of seven acres over a mile to the west of the larger settlement. Lewis Quarters was named after one of its founders, Charlie Lewis. The settlers appointed Peter Lee as their chief and established a governmental system based on African law.
The residents of African Town built the first school in the area. In 1872 they built Old Landmark Baptist Church, which is now Union Missionary Baptist Church. While the community retained much of their West African culture, construction of the church signaled the conversion to Christianity of many of the Africans. They were a tight-knit community known for sharing and helping one another but reportedly had tense relations with both whites and African Americans and so largely kept to themselves.”
Personally, I wish they had stuck with their West African Culture (which is largely Israelite Culture) as many West African Tribal Nations (such as the Yoruba, Congo, and Ashanti) still maintain the laws of the Old and New Testament apart from Christianity. After emancipation, the group reunited from various plantations, bought land, and founded Africatown. They ruled it according to ancient Biblical laws, spoke their own language and insisted on using their original names.
“A Press-Register reviewer wrote of Diouf’s findings: “The old interviews make abundantly clear that Lewis and his comrades were terrified and traumatized by their kidnapping and trans-Atlantic voyage. Their life in Alabama was very difficult, first for a few years as slaves and then in freedom. Not only did they have to contend with prejudice from whites, but their black neighbors considered them to be oddities who were crude, fierce and inscrutable.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis; the last known survivor of the Clotilda, the oldest slave on the ship and also a chief. Details of this interview has been compiled in a never-before-published work by Hurston by Amistad Publishing called Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo. (A Barracoon is a type of barracks used historically for the temporary confinement of slaves or criminals.) Another book about Africatown is Sylviane A. Diouf’s Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. The book is the Winner of the 2007 Wesley-Logan Prize of the American Historical Association, the 2009 G. Sulzby Award of the Alabama Historical Association and a 2008 finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
Today, Africatown is struggling with the new attention it’s getting from the discovery of pieces of the ship and the pollution to the air of what residents are saying is causing cancer. “Hosea O Weaver & Sons, an asphalt manufacturer, backs up on to some residents’ properties and is a business that has recently caused most concern. “On days when trucks are leaving the plant, some have covers and some don’t have any. If you have a north wind the dust is everywhere,” said Varner. “It gets everywhere and you have to breathe it in.” (Christopher Harress)
Residents of Africatown see it as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those companies provided jobs for the community and the town flourished economically. However, this also meant dealing with the noise and pollution. Though, according to one of the community’s leaders, environmental concerns are less of a worry now.
“Pollution has been an issue for over 100 years in Africatown, but at this particular time we’re moving to a more clean air environment because we lost some of the contributing forces, like the International Paper Company and all kinds of sawmills, and things of that nature,” said Cleon Jones, Africatown’s community leader and former New York Mets player. “We still have Kimberly Clark but they don’t process wood the way they used to. Our big fight has been against the oil companies, but I think that’s all in compliance now, according to the city and state. It’s always been about creating a buffer between our town and the companies, the noise, pollution, trucks.”