Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Community of Africatown

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.

To add to that list, I’d like to talk today about Africa Town, a place I didn’t know about until it has recently made news after suing an industrial plant claiming it released toxic chemicals linked to cancer.

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.

Despite the challenges, Africatown’s story is too special to be lost. In fact, it recently was catapulted back to national attention via an unexpected connection on the PBS geneology show “Finding Your Roots.” In one episode the influential musician and author Amir “Questlove” Thompson learns that his personal family heritage includes an ancestor, Charles Lewis, who was taken aboard the Clotilda and became one of Africatown’s founders.

Where the Clotilda’s story ended, Africatown’s began

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.”

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Black History Fun Fact Friday – Willie James Howard

Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday.


Willie James Howard was born on July 13, 1928, in Live Oak Florida. At fifteen years old he was in the 10th grade and worked at the Van Priest Five and Dime Store downtown.

According to the story, Willie sent Christmas cards to employees of the store for the Christmas Holiday. One of the employees, a popular white girl named Cynthia, was offended by the gesture. According to the account (which has just as many variations as Emmett’s story), at the bottom of the card for Cynthia, Willie indicated the letter “L” for love.  Later, Willie wrote Cynthia a letter, this time apologizing. He signed this one with a little poem:

“I love your name. I love your voice, for a S.H (sweetheart) you are my choice.”

(Source of poem: Documentary Trailer https://vimeo.com/105289596)

On January 2, 1944, Cynthia’s father Phil Goff, who saw the letter (most likely by Cynthia showing it to him as some accounts suggest) and two of his friends arrived at Willie’s home and the three men dragged the boy from his mother’s arms. They also kidnapped his father. They drove to the Suwannee River and bound Willie James by his feet and hands and made him stand at the edge of the river where, according to his father’s testimony, he was told he could either jump into the river or be shot. The boy jumped in and drowned.

The Suwannee County sheriff ordered Ansel Brown, the local black undertaker, to retrieve the boy’s body from the river and bury it immediately. To cover up the incident, Phil and his friends forced Willie’s father to sign a document alleging that Willie jumped into the river on his own accord. According to their written statement which was included in the Lanier Report, the three men admitted taking the boy from his home and tying him up on the way to the river but they said he fell in accidentally. This conflicts with the first story that the boy jumped into the river. Either the boy jumped into the river on his own or he slipped accidentally. It was obvious the men were not telling the truth but there was never an arrest.

After signing the document, Willie’s father (also named James) packed up his family and moved to Orlando. No death certificate was ordered for his only son and the grave was unmarked for 60 years.

Thurgood Marshall demanded a full investigation and after hearing about Willie’s case, it was picked up by Harry T Moore of the NAACP who had gone to school with Lula Howard, Willie’s mother. Moore received documented proof from Willie’s parents explaining what really happened. They stated that Willie’s father had been threatened and forced to sign the document. However, a grand jury did not indict Goff and his friends and prosecution were never achieved.

Moore continued fighting for the case and in 1947 wanted to reopen it but Thurgood Marshall was unwilling to dedicate any more NAACP funding.

I found that Howard’s story mirrors that of Emmett Till’s in chilling ways. Though Emmett’s death was far more brutal, Willie is one of those unfamiliar faces we do not hear much about. Like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Willie Howard are on the same side of History.

  • Willie James Howard was born in July (7/13)
  • Emmett Louis Till was born in July (7/25)
  • Willie was 15 years old when he died
  • Emmett was 14 years old when he died
  • Willie wrote a letter to a white girl
  • Emmett whistled at a white girl (allegedly)
  • Willie was taken from his home
  • Emmett was taken from his home
  • Willie died in the Suwannee River
  • Emmett ’s brutally beaten body was found weighed down by a cotton gin in the Tallahatchie River
  • Willie died in 1944
  • Emmett was only 3 years old when Willie was murdered. He would be killed exactly 10 years later in 1955.
  • Both boys murderers were acquitted

The similarities here are chilling so when you remember Emmett  Louis Till this August, remember Willie James Howard too.