Namesakes: AfricaTown, a 153 year-ago-old Alabama community founded to preserve West African cultural ties, becomes sister-city with another Africatown, an initiative to save Black Seattle

15 mins read

Africatown, two Black communities with the same name, located across the country from each other, face a similar challenge—involuntary out-migration.

While one strategizes to keep residents living in their town, the other collaborates to bring people back to a historical district. Ironically, one town is dying as a result of a land trust, while the other uses a land trust for its survival. Both Africatowns are inextricably linked “around preserving and developing Black space” for the descendants of those who built the US, explains K. Wyking Garrett, president of Africatown Community Land Trust and a third-generation Seattleite involved in advocacy work.

The oldest settlement, AfricaTown in Alabama, sits on the bank of the Tensaw River Delta and shares land with two cities, Mobile and Prichard. Founded in 1866 by 32 of the last 110 Africans documented to have been brought to the United States via the Middle Passage; today, its residents, some who are descendants of the founders, battle local industrial plants. 

For decades, surrounding factories and mills emitted unsafe levels of pollution in an area called the chemical corridor, a 50-mile stretch of industrial companies. Close to where the town sits, the Memphis based, International Paper plant, operated for years.  Now, many people who lived in Africatown or still reside there are dying at high rates from cancer that is captured in a National Geographic documentary. The health crisis led 1,200 residents to launch a lawsuit against the paper company in 2018. 

Although, the International Paper plant denies any wrongdoing, the EPA forced the company to conduct a cleanup after discovering unsafe levels in groundwater. However, that was years after towns people reported daily the plants daily discharge of ash in the air and waterways poisoned its townspeople in its practice of insidious environmental racism. Yet and still, AfricaTown’s residents and strong associations of descendants who moved out, still work hard to “give it, its prominence” says AfricaTown native, Marc Jackson who is the owner of Kazoola Eatery and Entertainment, a restaurant and performance venue named after the town’s most famous founder, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis. 

When an archaeological find changes the narrative of a historical settlement

Mobile, Alabama, the Africa Town Welcome Center cemetery. Two visitors read gravestone Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, the last surviving African who was smuggled and transported on the Clotilda slave ship.

Nearby the historical settlement, the recent find of the 1860 slave ship, Clotilda, which transported the final group of stolen West Africans, resulted in community members now fighting off the rise of encroaching developers who seek tourism opportunities and corporations still attempting to further industrial ventures.

Named a historical national treasure by the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, AfricaTown shot into prominence when the Clotilda ship, was discovered this past April. Before the momentous archaeological find, the story was considered a myth. So much so, that according to Major Womack, even some AfricaTown residents stopped passing on its oral history. 

Because the ship was never located, even the slaveholding family accused of smuggling the West Africans to the US, the Meaher’s, denied the stories that still swirled amongst a core group of descendants of AfricaTown. In a twist of fate, or perhaps not, the boat was found just 200 yards away from the Meaher family’s current beach house waterfront property along the Mobile river.

With the Clotilda discovery, and growing attention, AfricaTown members expect to see a climb in visitors. But the years of neglect have left what urban planner and master designer, Renee Kemp-Rotan describes as “an African town [that] is now an African American descendant neighborhood in very poor repair, [and] a unique American place threatened by generations of benign neglect.”

The close-knit community of about 2,000 in Alabama’s AfricaTown, staunch local advocate, retired US Marine Corps major, Joe Womack, has been pushing for its environmental protection for years. Expanding his advocacy, he began to work towards revitalization during the Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For Major Womack, that leaves his beloved home with a wide expanse to grow. “Since we are a historic community . . . let’s take advantage of what Africatown has to offer and let’s incorporate it into [Mobile] city planning . . . so when people come out here they’re not just looking at houses falling apart,” pitches Major Womack in an interview with the Latitude Adjustment Podcast

However, an inside source told Ark Republic that a point of contention materialized among residents when it was discovered that some of them have been selling their land to developers following the explosion of interest. What compounds this issue is that the Meaher family still owns about 20 percent of the settlement and leases out property in a land trust, according to Womack. The issue remains “a thorn in the town’s side,” he says. 

After many failed attempts, the town is now working with Renee Kemp-Rotan, the first African American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Syracuse University, who is carrying out a plan to revitalize AfricaTown with a massive design and construction project of a 16-site waterfront and land redevelopment throughout the five square miles of the settlement. Pulling her resources from West Africa to Washington DC and down to Birmingham, it was when Kemp-Rotan researched for ideas that she came across Africatown in Seattle.

Surviving Seattle

The view of the Central District neighborhood and Downtown Seattle.

On the other side of the Mississippi river and thousands of miles north west of AfricaTown in Alabama, its younger sister, Africatown in Seattle, nestles itself between Chinatown International District and the Madrona-Leschi neighborhood. Just blocks from Lake Washington, Africatown is a land trust and community-led initiative started by Black Seattleites in 2016. 

Through the Africatown initiative, the venture acquires, designs, then develops properties in the Central District, a neighborhood that was once the heart of Black Seattle. Due to large-scale gentrification brought on by the local tech boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, as a corollary, the new Africatown serves as a response to massive dispersions of African Americans to cities mostly south of the major metropolis.

“Black space . . . has . . . often been defined as a negative, a ghetto, a place to avoid, a place to escape from,” says Garrett. He goes on. “[Seattle’s] Africatown really was [about] reclaiming the narrative and embracing the best of our experiences, both here in the Central District, but throughout our time here in the country, as well as, throughout history and throughout the world. [And thinking about] how that [narrative] can be used as a foundation of inspiration for what we build as a future for Black communities.”

With that, Garrett says Africatown Community Land Trust employs “an asset-based community development strategy” that redevelops properties for affordable housing and commercial spaces for Black Seattleites to “grow and thrive in place.” Displacement, as a result of gentrification, proves to be a hard lesson for Black Seattleites, but they are determined to bounce back and stay visible. 

In 1990, statistics show Blacks made up 10 percent of Seattle. According to the 2018 US Census, it stands at 7.1 percent. However, much of the out-migration occurred in the Central District. In the 1970s, the Central District was 70 percent Black. A Reuters report shows that it was 94 percent in the 1950s. Today, it stands at 18 percent.

Still, the area is comprised of minorities, primarily Asians and Latinos. “We are in many ways, economic refugees still from the TransAtlantic slave trade and now we’re facing, not just in Seattle, but nationwide, a third forced migration from the urban core which many Black people migrated.” says Garrett.

Described by Garrett as a once, “self-sustaining community . . . with a high percentage of Black homeowners and Black businesses [that] have mostly been dispersed into the surrounding counties,” the Central District was the cultural hub for African Americans. Boasting a thriving jazz scene from the early 1900s to the 1990s that produced Quincy Jones and Jimmy Hendrix, the district also teemed with Black-owned hair salons, barbershops, churches, restaurants and grocery stores. 

As well, in Central District stood Liberty Bank, the first Black-owned financial institution west of the Mississippi river that directly addressed redlining in Seattle by providing loans and banking to African Americans. Although much of the industries in the area were built because of rigid racial restrictions, a strong community emerged.

“Gentrification hit the Central District really hard and that was our concentration of Seattleites who were Black, growing up together, going to school together, knowing one another, knowing our neighbors, knowing our business owners,” explains TraeAnna Holiday, whose grandmother migrated to Seattle as a young woman.

Black Seattle. Bertha M Johnson, owner of Bertha’s Barber Shop on 23rd Avenue, center, with two male barbers. Many of the cosmetologists in Seattle’s Central District were trained at Marie Edwards School of Beauty on Jackson Street, which was the only African American-owned beauty school in the Pacific Northwest. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

A lively nightlife scene, women enjoy an evening with military men circa 1944. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

Known for its jazz scene, Dizzie Gillespie plays at the Senator Ballroom in 1949. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

An unidentified hostess from a house party in Seattle’s Central District, around 1950. Photographer Al Smith took tens of thousands of photos, many in Seattle’s Central District, the heart of the city’s African-American community. He donated over 40 boxes of photos to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

An unidentified woman at the Black and Tan, a popular jazz speakeasy in Seattle. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

Hillsbros BBQ was a popular roadside eatery that grew to a brick-and-mortar that stayed open until the 1990s, when gentrification began to disperse African Americans in the district. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

Isabelle Smith, nicknamed Izzy, was born to black coal miners in Roslyn, Washington. She and the photographer Al Smith married after he returned from a stint abroad, in 1941. Al Smith took this photo of Izzy in 1958. From the Al Smith Sr. collection that is now archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

For Black Seattleites, today’s record number departures come with a bitter history showing harmful segregationist practices as they worked to be included in the mid-20th Century. 

Columbia Magazine journal documents decades of open racial covenants implemented by public policy and private enterprise that stifled thousands of families from establishing themselves. Black migrants arrived in Seattle in the 1880s, but came in record numbers from the rural south during World War II to work in the region’s Naval shipyards and aircraft industry. During the war, racial covenants of the city sequestered African Americans to the Central District, which quickly caused overcrowding.

“Whites only” signs were posted on bars, motels, and restaurants. Neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Magnolia and West Seattle, operated as sundown towns where Blacks could not be there after dark or risked arrest, violence, and even death. Those African Americans were shut out of jobs and parts of the shipyard and aircraft industry, too.

Even, racist and humiliating treatment was evident in the local military base where Italian prisoners of war were given preferential treatment over American soldiers. Eventually, tensions became so high with racially-motivated hostile treatment of Black soldiers that they rioted in the summer of 1944. Wrote historian, Quintard Taylor, “23 [Black soldiers] were sentenced to prison while the remaining 13 were acquitted,” on charges ranging from murder to conspiracy after the unrest. 

Not only were African Americans excluded from growing capital, they were confined in every economic and political aspect of Seattle. Says Garrett. “When you think about the fact that [there were] restrictive covenants in this community . . . there was redlining, so Blacks often couldn’t get a loan. So, they bought property on contract and when they bought in on contract, they paid a Black tax meaning they paid more for the property. So right there, they had capital and wealth basically stolen from them.”

As some tensions dissipated in the 1950s, African Americans began to make some gains in Seattle. Noted as an area where African Americans could enterprise, by the 1960s, the city boiled once again, sending racial animosity to a peak. 

The response was revolution. Seattle was the first city outside of California to open a Black Panther Party chapter in 1968. Regardless, Garrett opines, “[We] were forced many times to live in substandard conditions, but still grew thriving communities.”

With an already vulnerable economic base that started to grow in the 70s, it started to weaken in the 80s and 90s during the rise of inner city real estate losing value. “The property values are depressed,” explains Garrett. 

“Not because of the location, because the location is the same [when compared to whites], but by the fact that Black people are in the community, [their properties are] appraised at a lower values and we’ve seen this even with the recovery of the recession. Equal middle-class communities, one is white, one is Black then it’s going to be higher appraised property value in the white communities.”

When emerging tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Expedia found roots in Seattle, dissimilar to previous industries that incorporated African Americans, whether by regulation or willingly, locals were shut out. However, it brought was Garrett calls, “the Black genius.” He furthers, “the Black talent that’s being brought can be pathways or ambassadors or bridges into the industry as well as they bring opportunities to bring businesses.” 

Explains Holiday, “I think that what we’re really seeing is a thriving transplant, black community that may be coming here for tech jobs . . . Because of tech, we also have higher wage incomes in regular industry, as well. So you see a resurgence of people coming here to do jobs that they might be able to do down-home in Atlanta, but they’re making 40 percent more here.”

Yet, in a gentrifying Seattle, the biggest problem for Black migrants and immigrants was space. “Now as things are getting dispersed those are challenges,” says Garrett. “There’s not a lot of spaces which allows for those bonds and relationships to develop. Because if they’re not happening in the professional setting and there’s not really space in the social setting, they’re not happening.”

The dwindling Black space was the impetus for Garrett and Holiday to plug into the city’s legislature that provided money for construction projects building or redeveloping affordable housing. HB 1406, passed in August of this year will take a portion of the state of Washington’s sales tax then direct it to affordable housing to its counties.

Renderings for Africatown Plaza in Central District neighborhood of Seattle.

But, for Africatown in Seattle, laws must be more than grand public gestures “The city plays a key role, [but] it has to be at scale,” says Garrett. “It can’t be one project every five years . . . $5.5 million for multiple neighborhoods and projects is a drop in the bucket. That’s a step in the right direction, but we need the city to run because this other stuff is on jet fuel.”

In Seattle, the long-lasting effects of racial covenants and redlining surfaced when Garrett and Holiday worked to secure Black or minority-owned contractors to work on their *Liberty Bank Building project.

“Previously, most of the affordable housing development, even though it was for Blacks, was being done by organizations that were not rooted in or necessarily accountable to the community . . . we’ve seen that our contractors have not been participating and they have obstacles, which a lot of it again is connected to access to capital,” notes Garrett.

Holiday includes. “Even when we talk about our Black contractors . . . they sometimes are the ones having to have the highest bids on these jobs because they are being charged more than their white counterparts for certain materials. Steel for instance. Insurance.”

She resumes. “And there’s some type of weird boys club almost still going on. So you see a disparity in women-owned businesses that are really minority-owned women businesses are paying higher costs.”

We are because of them

Finishing the redevelopment of the Liberty Bank Building, the first African American owned bank in the Pacific northwest, now turned into a 115-unit affordable housing complex and 3,000 square feet of retail space, K. Wyking Garrett, received an important correspondence. The call came from Renee Kemp-Rotan. Like Garrett, she worked on preserving and redefining Black spaces, and told him his community group’s initiative had a namesake in Alabama.

In their talks, Kemp-Rotan disclosed that she came into knowing about Seattle’s Africatown while conducting online research for Alabama’s settlement. Soon after, Garrett visited Alabama to establish a sister-city alliance.

Says Garrett. “They have the history, the legacy of resilience of the original community that made Africatown, as well as, the descendants that have endured what a lot of Black communities have endured across the country with the industrial pollution and environmental racism.” 

And just the denial for a long time . . . they have the land and they have the population, it is really the strategies and development mechanisms they could benefit from what we’ve learned and done.”

Africatown-Cochrane Bridge that cuts through Africatown and allows those who work in nearby plants to get to one of the factories in the chemical corridor.

In the Africatowns’ exchange, the Alabama collective provided rich history and template for surviving, while Garrett provided insight on the formation of the land trust in Seattle, which currently is planning its second redevelopment project, the Africatown Plaza. Another important part of Africatown Community Land Trust is partnering and providing a model for other communities facing dispersion to come up with creative, sustainable plans to remain in spite of the changing landscapes of their neighborhoods. 

Garret describes: “The success of Africatown is not just the land that we specifically develop, but really the movement that has been inspired and gaining traction and ground around preserving and developing Black space through multiple channels. 

“One, prioritizing public owned land for this cause. [Two] getting access for land that is for resources. For land that is owned by churches and other institutions to be redeveloped, as well as, the projects that we’re specifically leading. [Three] as well as, changing policy at the city, county and state level.

“The specific projects that we’ve done or are involved in is showing a model or people another path forward, in the face of gentrification.”

In return, in August, Kemp-Rotan spoke to Seattle’s Africatown contingency about her work and participated in the organization’s design cypher. During the community circle, participants gave input on how they would like a reconstructed property to look, feel and function as a community-oriented site.

As Kemp-Rotan tells, “We were given four hours to build a model of what, in fact, our version of Africatown would look like there,” tells Kemp-Rotan.

A way to include both longtime African American residents, and more recent Black migrants to the area, Holiday, a community builder and Africatown ambassador explicates, “What we work to do is ensure that we have certain partnerships that bring in those populations into the work we’re doing, into our design cyphers when we’re calling on the community to come out and share in the vision on what new building will look like.”

Adds Garrett, “Africatown provides the best platform and is most intentional about building bridges between our various diaspora communities including those who have been here, 400, 500 years or longer, as well as those who have migrated more recently including those from Africa, the Caribbean and Afro-south and Central America.”

Out of their connections, and other outside research performed by Kemp-Rotan, she carved out the idea to have a design challenge for AfricaTown in Alabama; hence, the recent announcement of the Africatown International Design competition.

Like Kemp-Rotan, other groups are contacting Africatown Community Land Trust looking for solutions so involuntary migration like they’ve experienced, does not repeat itself. Says Holiday. “What we’re seeing is community groups coming together and really asking expertise from Africatown that are across the region. 

She adds, “Because as we talk about our families being displaced, now people are trying to figure out how to build community, where they are now.” 

Holiday mentions that popular relocation cities for Black families are “Takoma, which is actually Pierce County. Federal Way which is South King county. Kent, Renton, Auburn, all of those cities are outside of Seattle with lower rents, lower mortgages from home. The cost of living is lower in those cities so we know a lot of our families from the central area have had to relocate to South King County.”

While thousands of dispersed Black families now live as much as an hour or more away, the Central District in Seattle remains as a hub for a Black past forging a place in the future.

*Feature photo is the opening of the Liberty Bank Building redevelopment project.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers news, diaspora and oversees the Ark Weekender.

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