They are descendants of slaves who built their own town. Can they keep it together?


Sydney A. Brobbey

(Photo: Elias Williams/The National Geographic)

As the end of Black History Month approaches, I believe that it is important to recognize the unknown individuals who have lived impactful lives, and the legacies that they have helped build. Several individuals — Darron Patterson, Lorna Gail Woods, Joe Womack, as well as others — have lived lives that have gone unnoticed, and as Black History Month comes to an end, it is only fair to give these individuals credit where credit is due.

Darron Patterson, Lorna Gail Woods, Joe Woemack, and several other individuals are descendants of the last African slaves, who were packaged on the Clotilda ship and brought to United States shores in July 1860.

After being freed by Union soldiers, during the Civil War, more than thirty slaves settled near Magazine Point in the northern part of Mobile, Alabama, and established their own town, known as “Africatown”. Blending their African traditions with American folkways, they established homes and churches, and they tended livestock, fished, hunted, and planted gardens. One of their most important accomplishments, though, was establishing a school — which, with the help of Booker T. Washington, became the Mobile County Training School.

According to Patterson, the descendant of slave Pollee Allen, Africatown was self-sustaining. With the founding of the Mobile County Training School, many students were trained to become impactful individuals — like Patterson himself. He attended the Mobile County Training School, where he says that “[the] school taught us [students] to be viable men and viable women.” After attending school, he went on to become a sports writer in Detroit, Michigan. Many of his peers also went on to pursue fruitful careers. Although Mobile County Training School created successful individuals in a self-sufficient town like Africatown, the town began to deteriorate rapidly after the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Africatown had approximately 12,000 inhabitants, but as the years progressed only about 2,000 residents remained. Woods, a descendant of slave Charles Lewis, says that she recalls the time when “[she and her neighbors] could reach out the window and hand two slices of bread to the home next door.” At times, as she stated in an interview, there were people who were desperately in need of such assistance. Today, only half of the homes are occupied and the rest are abandoned. Woods states that although she is seventy-years-old, she still “[has] in her heart a dream that [their] town will one day have stores and shops and gas stations again.” Albeit, many individuals share the same vision, but the city of Mobile has a different plan.

The city of Mobile is evolving into a more industrialized city. Africatown is part of Alabama’s Chemical Corridor, a 50-mile stretch of river that’s home to twenty-six major chemical companies. The town had three paper mills, a massive sawmill and lumber yard, and a tank farm with a dozen hulking oil and gasoline storage tanks. The four-lane Africatown-Cochran bridge, completed in 1991, was thrust through the heart of the business district, dividing the community and destroying local shops and stores. Although many jobs were created through this industrialization, many residents have been displeased with the drastic changes that have destroyed the roots of Africatown. One resident, Joe Woemack, a local activist for a cleaner environment in Mobile, believes that the unique past of Africatown can help revitalize the economy of Mobile. He says,“The city hasn’t taken care of the community because they want to industrialize the whole area. They just want to make money, but they could make money with tourism.”

The residents of Africatown have been making a strong effort to keep the history of the town alive. Last year, the Alabama Historical Commission partnered with the underwater archaeology firm Search, Inc. and the National Geographic Society to study a section of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, where the Clotilda is believed to have been burned and scuttled, and where they’ve found the remains of sunken ships. As stated by James Delgado, leader of the search, “People have been searching for Clotilda since 1860…we promised everyone in the community that we’d leave no stone unturned, and that’s what we’re in the middle of doing.”