The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Descendants of final slave ship voyage hope for revival of historic Africatown

The recent discovery of the Clotilda has put a spotlight on Africatown, Ala., where residents’ oppression has continued for generations after emancipation.

Reporter Nicole Ellis visits Africatown, Ala., for the commemoration of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive on U.S. shores. (Video: The Washington Post)
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AFRICATOWN, Ala. — Dressed in African textiles, wax print dresses and headdresses, residents of this quaint neighborhood near Mobile, Ala., sang and danced to the upbeat melodies of a brass band outside of a local community center on a recent spring day. Women and men warmly embraced each other under a white canopy tent that shaded the celebration from the punishing sun of the Deep South, beneath which their forefathers once toiled in slavery.

The atmosphere here has been exceptionally upbeat lately, after the recent discovery of the ship that brought those ancestors to America, the Clotilda — the last known slave ship to arrive on U.S. shores.

But the buoyant mood belies the current state of life in Africatown, which was founded by the West Africans who were carried here on the Clotilda’s final journey. Today, abandoned and boarded-up houses punctuate every block in the neighborhood. The modest homes are surrounded by lumber yards, a defunct paper mill and chemical plants. A highway splits the neighborhood in two.

It’s a marked decline from the Africatown of resident Joycelyn Davis’s childhood. She recalls watching the morning exodus of proud working-class men leaving their homes in the 1980s to work in the paper mill and other thriving businesses nearby.

“There was a store, there was a post office, and all those things are not there anymore,” said Davis, who says she is a sixth-generation descendant of one of the Clotilda arrivals, Charlie Lewis. “When I was growing up, my grandfather worked at the paper mill and, if you worked at the mill, you could provide for your family. You made a pretty good living.”

Listen on Post Reports: Nicole Ellis tells the story of the Clotilda, America’s last-known slave ship, and how the descendants of its passengers are confronting their past.

She marks the mill’s closure as the catalyst for the neighborhood’s descent to its current dilapidated state. But her cousin, local historian Lorna Woods, says the blight in Africatown is a byproduct of conditions that date back much further, to their ancestors’ arrival.

In 1870, five years after slavery’s abolition, Charlie Lewis and his relatives pooled their money to purchase land from his former owner, Colonel Thomas Buford. That area, known as Lewis Quarters, is now a small cul-de-sac at the end of a narrow driveway.

But the homes there are now surrounded by a lumber yard owned by Gulf Lumber Co. Their front and backyards look out over the stacks of wood and industrial blight.

The land “was taken away because of a lack of knowledge,” Woods said. “They didn’t know any lawyers or judges that could teach them the legal rules of owning that land, and they lost most of it.”

The industrial development here has had environmental effects on the community as well, residents say. Davis is one of more than 1,000 plaintiffs suing the International Paper Co., the owner of the mill where her grandfather worked.

The lawsuit accuses the now-defunct plant of releasing harmful chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding Africatown. As a middle school student, Davis recalls soot falling “like flurries on the playground.”

“We didn't think anything of it. Nobody knew how harmful it was,” she said. “It was just an everyday thing. And the smell was awful.”

Still, Davis says she’s optimistic about Africatown’s future, particularly after the discovery of the Clotilda. The ship has brought national attention that she hopes will attract new investment here.

Since the spotlight is on Africatown right now, maybe Habitat for Humanity could come in and help or the city could come in and help more,” she said. “We need more residents, more children in the middle school because enrollment is down. We just need help.”