How an Immoral Bet Created Africatown, Alabama
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these Africans were the first of their kind to create a self-sustaining community in America.
Robert Edward Battles Sr. lumbers along, his bad back hunched beneath his colorful dashiki — a traditional African garment — that flows down to his feet. He gestures at the tombstones that fill the Old Plateau Cemetery here in Mobile, Alabama. “Over in this old cemetery are the majority of the Africans, and some buffalo soldiers,” Battles says, using the Native American term for Black troops.
It looks like just another cemetery by another church by another highway in a state where it seems impossible to go a block without passing a house of worship. And yet folks like Battles see something here that defies the naked eye — the dream of Africatown, “the only place in the world that was run by full-blooded Africans who were brought here for the purpose of slavery, who kept their traditions and their way of life and their language,” says the septuagenarian historian wistfully.
What they did is say, ‘Since we can’t go back to Africa, we’ll build Africa here in Alabama.’
Robert Edward Battles Sr., historian
The story of the unlikely African community that rose up here on Hog Bayou in the late 19th century begins with a brash, immoral bet by a wealthy white businessman. Mobile shipyard owner Timothy Meaher was holding court with a group of rich Northerners when he made a bold and high-risk statement: He believed he could skirt an 1807 law that banned the importing of slaves to America. The penalty for getting caught would be death.
The shipper had learned that West African tribes were warring, and the king of Dahomey was offering to sell Africans for a cool $50 a head. And so in 1856 Meaher commissioned construction of the Clotilde, a two-masted schooner that was lighter and faster than most ships of the era and roomy enough to transport 150 Africans comfortably (unlike slaving ships of the past, Battles says, Clotilde had enough headroom for its human cargo to stand upright). After choosing Capt. William Foster to lead the expedition, the crew set out across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Alabamans’ journey did not go completely as planned — at one point they had to outrun pirates in a Portuguese man-of-war — but they docked safely in the Kingdom of Whydah, Dahomey (today’s Benin), on May 15, 1859. Whydah turned out to be more dangerous than they had expected too. There was, of course, the king, but there also were the Dahomey Amazons, or N’Nonmiton, a word in the Fon language for “our mothers” — lethal female warriors whose reputation caused Europeans to nickname them after the Amazons of Greek mythology. Nervous, Foster collected only 110 slaves and “took off,” Battles says, worried that the Africans would kill them all and take their cargo.
The return voyage was uneventful, but Foster and the crew were importing their illegal cargo just as the cultural winds were shifting. Within two years, the Civil War would break out over the very issue of slavery, and the scene in Mobile reflected that heated climate. Federal authorities were aware of Meaher’s scheme, and they were looking for someone to make the poster boy of a no-nonsense stance on slavery. Fearful for his life, Foster docked in the dead of night on Dauphin Island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. He dropped off his cargo and then burned and sank the Clotilde. Some historians say that the African slaves were distributed quietly to those who had financed the voyage, while others say the feds intercepted them. Regardless, Meaher kept 30 Africans for himself. Though tried for his crimes, he was never convicted.
Legally, the Africans could not be called slaves, but they were essentially Meaher’s personal property. After the Civil War, 32 Africans stayed on the businessman’s land, creating out of the swampy marshes of their captivity a place to call their own. “What they did is say, ‘Since we can’t go back to Africa, we’ll build Africa here in Alabama,’” Battles notes.
To be sure, life on Hog Bayou was tough, even in freedom. The Africans survived by hunting and fishing, although in that sense their plight wasn’t so different from that of the poor whites who scoured the South for sustenance during Reconstruction. There were “old shanty houses and communes,” says Battles, but the residents were free and together. They practiced Vodun, the faith of their West African fathers, which in America would later be called voodoo. After many converted to Christianity, the Africatown residents built Stone Street Baptist Church in 1870, one of the oldest Baptist churches in Alabama.
The community survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation. In Battles’ telling, it was integration that spelled the end of Africatown. As the original residents died, the next generation was less wed to its roots, more eager to join the American tradition. “The loss of culture has been very devastating as it relates to the African-American,” notes Battles, who is also a member of the Mobile school board. “As Marcus Garvey, who was from Jamaica, said, Whenever you lose your culture, it’s like a tree without roots.”
The last survivor of the Clotilde expedition, Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis, died in 1935 at age 95. But Battles and others like him hope to keep the community alive in spirit. Africatown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and the city of Mobile has developed a neighborhood plan to build a museum next to the cemetery. In February, a bust of Lewis was erected outside nearby Union Missionary Baptist Church. He stares eastward — “a symbol of [the Africans’] long desire to go home,” Battles says.