story and photography by: cathy r. foreman
In late April, I heard about the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Alabama that was set to take place within a few days. After seeing Instagram posts by Ava DuVernay, I started some research to find out more about this place. Based on what I saw and read, I knew I wanted to visit. I talked with my mom about it and she was in. So I purchased our tickets for the Memorial Holiday Weekend and that was that.
Then, in what seemed like just a few days later, Zora Neale Hurston's book, “Barracoon” was released. It's the story or more like the biography of a man, Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis, the last living survivor of the middle passage. The slave trade had been outlawed, but a group of white men, initiated by Timothy Meaher and based on a bet, sailed to Africa, kidnapped and illegally transported the last group of captives; 120 African men and women, and enslaved them. The snippets were enough to pull me in. Now I’ll be the first to tell you, I am not an avid reader, but I knew that this book needed to be in my possession, if for nothing else, its historical significance. Once I started reading, I knew we had to include a trip to Africatown while in Alabama.
Early Friday morning, my mother and I set off for what would later be an 18 hour drive, with all the stops we made. A long drive for many, it’s always worth it when you can stop and take in other sites along the way … which is what we always do.
We bypassed Montgomery pushing through to Mobile. More specifically we were headed to a piece of history that I don’t think too many people know about. It’s not a place that’s talked about, at least that I’ve heard. With the release of Zora’s book, I hope that changes. As I mentioned, I am not a reader, but I really made an attempt to read this book and wanted to finish before we made our journey. I got about a quarter of the way through, after the preface and forward, before I just couldn’t push myself anymore. I think I’m a cliff notes kinda girl, but I digress. I still wanted to know more and it would have been a huge disservice to drive all that way and not take advantage of a prime opportunity. I’m like that; curious about our history … what we did, who we were and are, where we come from. So any opportunity I get to see that up close and personal, I leap at it.
Not knowing what to expect, we drove right through the little township and hadn’t even realized. I mean I saw a mural of the Clotilde, the last slave ship, but I thought that was just a marker and we breezed on past. Then we reached a point where my mom and I looked at each other and said, “Was that it?” So we turned around. I told her, based on some web searches I had done, there was supposed to be a sign, kind of like those “Welcome to XYZ Town,” but I hadn’t seen that. We reached the end of of the highway and could either go left or right, so we went left so we could turn around and go back to where I had seen the mural and just like that, there was the sign. When we initially drove by, we had only seen the back side of the sign, not the colorful front side. So we turned into what looked like a small community and drove through what I can only explain as a community forgotten.
Again, I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for what we saw; a hand full of nice brick homes, but an abundance of dilapidated, condemned and burned down homes. My mom said, I hope there is no one living in these. But as we drove through, we saw some elders sitting outside, on the stoop, of one of the brick homes, an elder gentlemen standing outside of a rundown home ... just kinda of doing what older people do; piddling in the yard. We also saw some sort of training center that looked like it used to be a school, but has since been vacated and has run down. One thing that stood out in particular, for me, and made me feel some kind of way was a huge sign on one property stating that it had been acquired by the state due to non-payment of back taxes. Honestly all I could think about was the appropriation of this little piece of history by any means possible.
As we came back through, those same elders we saw earlier were still on the stoop, so I stopped and asked if I could pull in, which they welcomed. Walking up to the porch, I got a sense of déjà vu. I’m from the country and that is something true to country living. I felt as if they could have been family and I could easily see my grandmother, who is deceased, sitting there welcoming someone like myself on up to the porch. I introduced myself and we just started to talk. Miss Bernadette, Miss Sarah and Miss Edwina were so warm. I told them where I was from and why I had come. I asked about any remnants of the time or any stories. Sadly. there aren’t any artifacts and barely any remnants from a not so distant past. The homes have all been built over and thus that part of history is long gone. As for the stories, many of them are lost with the passing of the many elders who possessed that knowledge. Truth be told, a lot of the extended families have moved away, which I completely understand coming from a much more rural area myself, and as such the stories have as well. In retrospect, I should have recorded my conversation, but I was so engrossed that it completely slipped my mind. I was able to find out about the church and Cudjoe’s memorial, the mural and a hidden gem was right above it … the remnants of the last original home from the time. What I found interesting about this was a marker for a Meaher, an ancestor of the man who set this whole ordeal in motion. In my research, afterwards, I found that I shouldn't be so surprised as the land that these free Africans built on was purchased from this man. I even met the great great grandson, Karliss Hinton, of Fannie Keeby, the daughter of Osia Keeby, one of the stolen Africans turned slave, who settled in Africatown, now Plateau. He… is a character.
Across the street from the church is the cemetery, which houses most, if not all of the original settlers of the community and their families. The cemetery is a bit overgrown and a lot of the plots are sunken. Some of the headstones are no longer legible; time is definitely not kind. There are even some plots in an even lower region near a drain. While right next to this is a newer cemetery. What I couldn’t tell was if it was a part of the Africatown plots or yet another show of land appropriation where whites were now buried ... I’m willing to bet it’s the latter. You can see for yourself from the images. Across from the cemetery is a gated area with letters spelling out AFRICA TOWN on the gates. Inside is the remaining foundation of a building, which once was a welcome center, but no more and a huge sign, tucked off in the corner, that reads “The Future Home of the Africatown Welcome Center”. Based on what Miss Sarah told me, the community has gotten a grant from the government which is to be used to “revitalize” the area. I'm deathly afraid of the word when it comes to the black community and for this specific area, it leaves a knot in the pit of my stomach. It is my sincere hope that this “revitalization” is not an undercover gentrification.
Look for part two of my trip to Alabama next week.