The African Diaspora expands with a new district in a major city promising to bring economic growth and cultural heritage.
People of African descent have left their footprint in every place they reside. Consequently, their influence and enhancements to culture and economics span across communities, regions and nations, where eventually they stake their claim.
The original Africatown in Mobile, Alabama was founded after the Clotilda, the last documented slave ship in the U.S. smuggled in 110 enslaved Tarkbar people from West Africa in 1860. The second Africatown is in Seattle, Washington’s Central District, where Jim Crow segregation laws relegated Black residents to live. There is also Africatown, China, where 200,000 African immigrants settled in the city of Guangzhou. All of these closely knit communities maintain an African presence. Now, the latest Africatown has emerged—this time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Why Africatown in Philly?
Southwest Philly is now being rebranded as Philadelphia Africatown. For years, the section was called Little Africa because of its large African population. Organizers are now highlighting residents’ rich culture and distinctive commercial district.
Just as many urban centers have a Chinatown as tourist attractions and cultural hubs, Philadelphia Africatown plans to be a destination for the African Diaspora and the 36.2 million people who visit the area. This includes the city being a major tourist destination for African Americans.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia metro area is home to over 120,000 African and Caribbean immigrants, many of whom live in the Southwest part of the city. The Africatown project will use tourism as a vehicle to provide an economic boost.
The African Cultural Alliance of North America Inc. (ACANA), is leading the project in partnership with the African Caribbean Business Council of Greater Philadelphia (ACBC). ACANA is a nonprofit organization that serves African and Caribbean immigrants in the Philadelphia area and produces the annual ACANAFest that attracts over 3,000 people to Philadelphia’s waterfront each August. ACBC, an organization of African and Caribbean businesses, is the only business organization in the Philadelphia Region that specifically focuses on trade with African and Caribbean nations, and is connected to the fast growing markets in Africa and the Caribbean through its partners and membership.
In Philadelphia there is no contention around who is included in the diaspora and the Philadelphia Africatown project welcomes those who come from its many routes and dispersions. “When we say African people we mean the Diaspora,” Voffee Jabateh, founder and executive director of ACANA explained. Jabateh, a Liberian immigrant, furthered, “Whether you are from the Caribbean, here since 400 years of slavery, a recent arrival from Africa or Afro-Latino, we are the same people and we are moving forward as one people.”
The boundaries of the project include a huge area that extends from South 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue, to South 74th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, to the Woodland Avenue business corridor and includes a large number of African and Caribbean businesses. The partnership has acquired several properties on the 5400 block of Chester Avenue and is in the process of acquiring a nearby supermarket on Chester Avenue that will be worker-owned and operated.
Africatown’s proposal includes a new headquarters for ACANA, a trade center, innovation & technology center, medical center, daycare center, performing arts center, low-income housing and lodging for tourists. One of the most exciting aspects is the African and Caribbean Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia that will include office and showroom space, meeting rooms, a large auditorium, and a state-of-the-art communications center to accommodate international meetings.
Management and technical assistance to businesses seeking to export products, goods and services to African and Caribbean nations will be provided. Additionally, it will provide procurement assistance to Philadelphia area businesses seeking contracts from U. S. agencies that purchase goods and services for export to foreign nations.
Development plans include the 5400 block of Chester Avenue where ACANA is headquartered that will be known as Dolakeh Square, which means “people working together to achieve a shared goal” in the Mano language of West Africa.
Although gentrification is ravaging many Black communities in Philadelphia, residents in Southwest Philly are determined to stay. “We need to take advantage of every opportunity to do something like this,” emphasized Jabateh. “We are people with one cause and the same destiny. We are here to work together and build a sustained community that nobody will take us out of.”
In the planning and development stage for over a decade, the project is now moving forward. But unlike other Africatowns, Philadelphia Africatown has had the support of local and state officials from its inception. All of the elected officials that represent the area are in support of the project and have helped provide the funding needed.
Former City Councilperson Jannie Blackwell, first vice chair of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, offers her unwavering endorsement and has worked closely with ACANA and ACBC to move it forward. “We started talking about this about 10 years ago,” stated Blackwell, founder and chair of the Mayor’s Commission on African & Caribbean Immigrant Affairs. “Africatown is my dream! If I accomplish nothing else on this side, I want Africatown to be that. We have businesses here that are committed to this area.”
Initially, Blackwell became involved by helping the vendors and working with the people in the area. “We’re not going to be gentrified. These folks aren’t moving.”
Blackwell pointed out that airlines now have direct flights from Africa to Philadelphia. “People are going to get off of those planes and come to Africatown to shop, go to restaurants and museums. We’re going to have everything here! I’m honored to be a part of it.”
The project’s biggest advocates are members of African Diaspora. In November 2022, they were out in full force to witness the official groundbreaking of the first phase of Philadelphia Africatown. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania legislators presented ACANA with a check for a $9 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant at the groundbreaking. The RACP provides funding for the acquisition and construction of regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational and historical improvement projects.
Overall, the community development project will cost over $16 million to complete. “We’ve raised about $16 million so far,” said Stan Straughter, chair of ACBC. Straughter explained that the groundbreaking was the first phase of the project that includes the building that will house the medical center and daycare center. He projected that phase one will be complete in about 18 months with the second phase “expected to take two years and includes renovating the supermarket, building an office tower and developing low-income housing.”
The Global African Connection
The organizers of the project are Pan-Africanists who look at Africatown as a step in developing an economic connection with the Global African Diaspora. They have developed close relationships with Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, former African Union Ambassador to the United States, who is founder of the African Diaspora Development Institute, and numerous African diplomats and business leaders who visit Philadelphia on a regular basis.
The Port of Philadelphia (PhilaPort) is a gateway to other markets and is the largest shipping facility in the U.S. receiving cocoa beans from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Goods from Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa also come through PhilaPort. Philadelphia Africatown’s trade center will be a major partner with the African Continental Free Trade Area, a trade agreement between 54 African nations to collectively promote trade, making it the largest trading block in the world.
Foremost in the goals of Africatown is practicing collective economics and working in unity to make sure Global Africans get their share of the economic pie.
Jabateh, Straughter, Blackwell and other partners of Philadelphia Africatown are serious about the business of forging a new path for the establishment of the Global African Diaspora as an economic power to be respected by the world.