With 10 miles to convey the story of the 110 Africans on the Clotilda slave ship, and the subsequent founders of Africatown. The small community launches big plans to narrate the complex story of the slavery in the U.S. with multiple redevelopment projects.
Africatown’s reddish brown clay and loamy soil remains fresh from a recent groundbreaking. The ceremony announced a landmark initiative to construct the Africatown Heritage House museum. While the project is long overdue, the museum is only part of a major collaborative campaign to redevelop the town as a historical global treasure trove narrating the profound history of the slave ship Clotilda, and at length, slavery in the United States.
“This is the kind of thing that we are supposed to be doing in our community,” said Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood at the groundbreaking.
Already, the county commission approved $1.3 million to assist in the construction of the approximately 5,000-square-foot museum. As well, the city of Mobile has earmarked $250,000 for the building.
An inclusive project centering Africatown resident’s, the museum will be curated by the History Museum of Mobile in partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission and the Africatown Advisory Council. “From the beginning, two things have been very important to this project. First, anything we did had to be community-driven . . . second, we are committed to an exhibition that is not only historically accurate but also is executed to the highest standards of public history and curatorial practice,” History Museum Director Meg Fowler.
“We’re happy for you to be here because this is serious stuff,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association to the ceremony’s attendees. For the descendants the museum “make[s] sure we never, ever forget the story of those people who made this place what it is.”
The emergence of one of the most important American landmarks
Africatown, a sleepy historical hamlet situated between Pritchard and Mobile, Alabama was thrust into the global spotlight in 2019 when evidence proved residents’ oral histories asserting that they were descendants of the last known enslaved Africans brought to the United States. In their claims, their ancestors were part of a cargo of 110 Africans transported on the slave ship Clotilda in 1860. Those who stayed in the area established the town after the Emancipation of enslaved Blacks in1863.
Finding the slave ship Clotilda is such an incredible find for many reasons. For one, transporting Africans in 1860 was an act of piracy because importing captive Africans to the US as slaves was outlawed in 1808. So, to cover it up, the vessel was shipwrecked then burned in Mobile River Delta near Twelve Mile Island in 1860.
After multiple marine archaeological explorations, the Alabama Historical Commission corroborated descendants’ claims with the discovery of the remains of the Clotilda. Now, named as the only slave ship found in the Americas and the last documented vessel carrying Africans to be enslaved, artifacts from the Clotilda will be in the museum.
With the spotlight, Africatown’s generations-long fight against environmental racism and encroaching developers came to the fore. Of other importance, their efforts to revitalize the small town as an essential archaeological find, and a cultural destination will take more than their village to see it through.
An extensive redevelopment project with multiple phases, Africatown plans to reconstruct itself as major cultural and historical destination with some of the following plans outlined in the 2016 Africatown Neighborhood Plan:
- Use 10 miles of waterway to link Africatown to Prtichard and Mobile by constructing such as improving streetscapes and entryways such as its bridges.
- Along the waterway install monuments, memorials and interpretive sites telling the story of Clotilda and slavery
- Construct Africatown Heritage House
- Create more economic opportunities with construction efforts and sites through jobs and contracts
- Demolish dilapidated buildings to build affordable housing
- Bring more businesses to the area
Behind the massive redevelopment are a slew of government and community persons, as well as, private investors.
“We know the work ahead will be tremendously difficult, and will require the positive generous supporters of a strong board of directors, staff and significantly more financial resources,” said Anderson Flen a board member on the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation. In July 2020, the organization was awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Trust through The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in their efforts to restore Africatown.
Continued Flen, “Through our united efforts and collaborative work, we will build and produce the organizational foundation of excellence our community needs, deserves, and expects.”
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Another key participant in Africatown’s reimagination is master planner and urban designer, Renee Kemp Rotan. Currently, Rotan works with the non-profit, M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast Community Corporation to build the idea of the Africatown Cultural Mile, which will be a network of business, a welcome center, cultural facilities, a hotel and performance venues across the 10 miles connecting Africatown, Pritchard and Mobile. Rotan, the director of grants and special projects in the Mayor’s Office in Birmingham is preparing to launch an international design competition to envision Africatown on the other side of redevelopment of the district.
“Our hope is that powerful, Afrofuturistic designs from world-class architectural teams will not only help inspire Africatown residents’ dreams, but also plan for the future they want, using the Competition’s catalogue of design ideas,” said Rotan in a press release through Avant Media.
With the contest taking place on June 1, 2021, the competition coordinators explain that “The designers’ challenge is to weave plans for 16 venues on 4 sites across 3 cities and 2 continents into a single, world-class cultural heritage destination system worthy of Africatown’s exceptional history.”
A massive project that must deal with generations of disenfranchisement, Rotan insisted, “We want to arm them with tools to create the community they want, because their success can inspire regeneration of other under-served Black spaces that matter.”
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