In 1860, a ship named the Clotilde slipped surreptitiously into Alabama’s Mobile River Delta carrying an illicit cargo of 110 enslaved Africans. While slavery was not illegal in the United States at the time, the importation of slaves into the country was banned in 1808. To destroy evidence of the crime, the ship’s owners quickly had it burned and then divided the Africans among them to work their plantations. Twelve years later, long after the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery in the United States, 32 of the Africans who crossed the Atlantic aboard the Clotilde returned to the western banks of the Mobile River. Near where they first set foot on this nation’s soil, they founded the community of Africatown, a place where they could maintain their culture and language in an otherwise foreign and hostile land. It was one of the first cities established by African Americans.
Today, Africatown (also known as Africatown USA or Plateau) has been incorporated into the Mobile metropolitan area. In addition to a mural of the Clotilde on a retaining wall and a plaque in a local cemetery, there is little to signal the neighborhood’s connection to this history. Like so many African-American communities, Africatown has been devastated by industrial pollution and divestment. Abandoned and dilapidated homes and businesses define much of the built environment. A paper mill moved there in the 1920s but closed in the early 2000s, and in the 1980s much of the land the city occupied was seized for construction of the Cochrane Bridge. From a peak of 21,000 at the start of the 20th century when the paper mill was in operation, the population has declined to around 2,000, of whom around 100 are believed to be direct descendants of Clotilde passengers. Despite decades of organizing and advocating to improve these conditions, there is little cause for hope. Now, however, it looks like the very slave ship that started it all could be the key to a brighter future for Africatown.
In 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced that the rest of the Clotildea had been found in the Mobile River delta. The discovery sent a wave of excitement through Africatown. Residents quickly rallied to establish the significance of their role in shaping the narrative surrounding the illegal slave ship. The highlight of this was the launch of Africatown International Design Ideas Competitionwhich aims to permeate the district with programs and architectures bearing witness to its rich and complex history.
The ideas competition is one of the many ways the people of Africatown are harnessing the power of their cultural heritage to uplift the crumbling community. MOVE (Creating Viable Opportunity for All) Mobile~Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation commissioned designer, writer and activist Renee Kemp-Rotan to help achieve its goal of “having Africatown interpret and control its own narrative, with the huge economic opportunity it now represents due to the Clotilde.” What began as the design of a museum honoring the history of one of the few African-owned colonies in America has blossomed into a comprehensive Africatown/Prichard/Mobile area creative venue, steeped in the unique story that shaped it. After extensive community engagement, four sites were selected to host a total of 16 sites, each with distinct programs that honor and interpret Africatown’s history while designing a hopeful and prosperous future for the community.
Each site selected for the competition is part of a larger whole, dubbed the Africatown Cultural Mile. The objective of the cultural mile is to provide the territory with economic stimulation and cultural heritage. “We ask designers to redefine Africatown so that it can be known and admired as a world-class cultural heritage and creative destination system, with the story of resilient black people at its heart,” said Vickii Howell , President and CEO of MOVE.
According to The Architectural League of New York’s US Roundtable Report on Africatown (also led by Kemp-Rotan and Howell), when Mobile annexed the community in the 1960s, it was hoped the city would take responsibility for its new neighborhood and end the industrial expansion and pollution that had tormented the area and caused high levels of cancer and autoimmune diseases. Instead, the City of Mobile rezoned much of the neighborhood, reducing its residential footprint, and opened nearby above-ground trash storage facilities. The community fought back, resulting in a court case against International Paper and an overhaul of the zoning code.
The design competition encompasses this more recent history as much as the origins of Africatown. The contest sites stitch together the area’s long and complex history, including the Josephine Allen public housing complex (demolished by the City of Mobile in 2019), parts of the industrial waterfront, and the cemetery where the African founders of origin were buried. . “You can connect to all of this history by land and by sea,” Kemp-Rotan said. “That’s the real goal of the competition: cultural tourism as an engine of economic development with really cool architecture.
The winning entries will be selected by a jury of 16 designers, historians and local residents. The results will be compiled into a book and given to the community to inspire the design and guide the redevelopment of Africatown into a thriving community. Kemp-Rotan is adamant in championing a community-wide Afrocentric utopia that embraces the wholeness of African architecture and celebrates its role in the legacy of black spaces. “Most of the things written about Africatown have been written about the boat, the past and the history,” she said. “No one really talks about what the future of this place will become.” Those who wish to participate must register before September 19. Designs must be submitted by January 19, 2023, and winning entries will be announced on March 19 this year. The winning teams will be invited to Mobile for the first annual International Conference on African Monument Design and Heritage Tourism on June 19, 2023.
Alaina Griffin contributes regularly to A.