Keys to Freeze, Mile 1104: The Fighting Spirit of Africatown

In an Alabama community founded by freed slaves, a legacy of pollution has left a lifetime of environmental scars, but the people are determined to write their own destiny.

Keys to Freeze, Mile 1104: The Fighting Spirit of Africatown

We crossed the bridge from Mobile, Alabama and descended into Africatown.

Tyler and I stopped, looked around, and wondered what neighborhood we had rolled into. We had read no literature about this community straddling the northern edge of Mobile, heard nothing of it from anyone we talked to that day. It was as if we had cycled into a disremembered place.

Vacant homes lined the streets — doors boarded and windows broken, lawns grown over with weeds, trash littering the dark corners of the yards. It was rutted, gutted and forgotten. Across the dividing highway loomed a huge and abandoned warehouse, its roof slumped downwards. In our first thousand miles of the Keys to Freeze cross-continental bike ride, I had not yet seen such an environmentally devastated community.

A black sedan with tinted windows drove past, and we followed it deeper into Africatown.

“The ash would fall from the sky like snow in July,” Joe Womack told us. “Like snow in New York City in the middle of winter.” This was later that night when we had found a floor to sleep on at a local church. Our questions about Africatown were being answered by a man who has taken love for his home and turned it into a vessel for action.

“You were a kid and you walked around with your sandwich, and ash would fall and get in your sandwich; you would just brush it off and eat it, cause you’re not gonna get but one sandwich a day!” Womack said. He smiled, and then sighed. “And that smell you couldn’t get away from it; that smell of a paper mill and everything it includes; that smell around a paper mill, you just live with it. It just was a part of your life.”

Joe Womack is Africatown born and bred, and proud of it. After serving twenty years in the Marine Corps he returned to his home and became involved as an environmental activist. The impetus was not his memories of pollution growing up, but his mother.

Joe Womack, an environmental activist in Africatown. (Photo by George Eklund)
Joe Womack, an environmental activist in Africatown. (Photo by George Eklund)

“They were having a meeting one night to talk about bringing a trucking line in there,” he said, referring to a community meeting at the Africatown civic center. Womack’s mother asked if he would listen in on the meeting for her. Womack heard that the trucking company was planning to rezone the residential area into a business sector, which would force Womack’s mother out of her home.

Womack’s mother told him, “Don’t let them take away my home.”

“Don’t worry momma, they won’t take it.”

Womack began working with the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Committee (MEJAC) and has since published multiple articles about the history, community and environmental issues revolving around Africatown. He has walked these streets and knows its people. Womack understands Africatown and the importance of its community.

Africatown is the settlement founded by the last documented slaves to reach America. In 1860, wealthy landowner Timothy Meaher made a $100,000 bet that he could smuggle one hundred slaves into Mobile. The international slave trade had been made illegal by the United States in 1808 and so Meaher designed a boat with a deep hull to hide his slaves. He called the boat Clotilde.

“But,” Womack continued, laying out the town’s history in poignant, precise detail, “he actually purchased 110 because the trip was tough and he figured about ten would die. None of them died. All 110 made it back. They were strong people.”

When the institution of slavery was made illegal under the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the now former slaves settled along the Hog Bayou, formed a government under tribal law, and grew.

In an act recognizing Africatown, the state of Alabama mandated they establish some sort of education system. “So in 1880 they established a school, and that school — Mobile County Training School, my alumni, my high school — was the first training school in the state of Alabama,” Womack said. Historically, the designation “training school” implies a school with primarily African-American students.

Womack carried on. “Well, now Africatown is bordered on three sides by water. And, just like people like water, industry likes water too.”

Shortly after World War II both Scott Paper and International Paper Company came to the head of Mobile Bay and set up shop in Africatown. One plant sat along the Hog Bayou and the other on the Mobile River, which runs along the north and east edges of present-day Africatown.

With Scott and International Paper as the county’s largest employers, the Africatown community swelled to around 15,000 people. Womack says the paper companies were offering a job to anyone with an Africatown address; that all anyone had to do was go into their offices, say “I live at 701 Center Street,” and they would walk out with a job — like Womack’s father did at the Scott building when he was sixteen years old.

The community thrived until the mid-1990s when both Scott Paper and International Paper moved their business operations away from Alabama. “And all those jobs moved with them,” said Womack.

This departure of industry led to a mass Africatown exodus. The area’s population dropped from 15,000 to 1,500 residents, and parts of town were left to ruin — the parts we cycled through.

In the twenty years since big industry left Africatown, the remaining people have worked together to rebuild, placing Africatown on the National Register of Historic Places and fighting off initiatives from trucking companies and waste treatment facilities that would turn residential areas of town into business zones.

“But now the energy business is coming and that’s a whole ‘nother ball game,” Womack says. Oil and tar sand refinery company Canadian National has set up shop, among other companies. “These people got money and they don’t mind throwing it around. “They got power and they’ve got strength. Especially the tar sands business.” He reminded us that everybody knows about the Keystone pipeline, but few know about the rail trains that are coming down the east coast from Canada carrying oil and sands. “And now they want to build a hundred of these super storage tanks right there — right there, almost right across the street from the community.” Businesses that have come into Africatown are requesting permission to rezone to accommodate warehouses.

“So industry is really pushing hard here, trying to move the people out — and the problem is that there’s a lot of land, and the land isn’t owned by the individuals within the community,” Womack says. They’re fighting, working with local environmental groups who have taken up their cry. “We are just not willing to yield to the big arm. We just want a chance to keep what we have and preserve it.”

Africatown’s voice is only 1,500 strong, so it’s hard to be heard in the grand scheme of things. Still, Womack believes that the vibrant history and culture of Africatown should be loud enough to prevent the construction of these tar sands storage facilities.

“You know, Mobile is the center of the first and the last,” he notes. “The first Mardi Gras to celebrate freely and the last slave ship, and we gotta push that celebration. To me that’s something to be proud of.”

Our night continued, turning from a history of Africatown to Womack’s favorite stories passed down from the generations before, like the one about Hog Bayou, where he, his brother, and his granddaddy used to go fishing. Hog Bayou was where the first freed slaves lived, where the first settlers of Africatown built their homes. Their community thrived with Hog Bayou, and withered as the paper industry polluted its waters to the point of inhabitation. In the years since the Scott Paper Company and International Paper left Mobile, both Africatown and Hog Bayou have rebuilt:

Joe Womack speaks about the history of Africatown, Alabama. (Audio by Brady Lawrence)

“We are gonna catch ‘em, and we are gonna kill ‘em, and we are gonna eat ‘em. I know they are fast but they can’t outrun me,” said Womack.

I get chills listening to this, because instead of Womack’s voice I hear big industry talking about Africatown.

“We are gonna catch ‘em, and we are gonna kill ‘em, and we are gonna eat them all.”

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Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively as our six daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.