Africa Town, Alabama

Historical Summary

Africa Town, Alabama, tells an interesting story about slave smuggling, community and self-segregation. Its creation is unique among most black town histories, particularly of those founded as late as the Civil War era. This community was established as a way to live separately not only from white Americas, but also African Americans who often clashed with the African-born residents who founded the town. Ironically, despite their desire to live apart from American society, the community garnered considerable local and national attention over the many decades of its existence.

Cudjo Lewis of Africa Town, AL Cudjo Lewis at his home in African Town, in the late 1920s. (Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Although international slave trade was prohibited since 1808, human trafficking continued, just as it does today. Africa Town (also spelled Africatown), Alabama, was living proof of that evil. Hungry for more slaves, elite planters in Mobile commissioned the ships and the expedition, supervising and funding each step of the process. The effort to build the ship and collect pre-orders for their human contraband was not a very covert one, and federal officials received word of the Cloitilda’s dark mission before it returned from Africa. The captain made it to the eastern shore near Mobile, smuggled Africans off the ship, and then set out to permanently destroy evidence of the entire voyage. The investors burned their own ship and sunk it. Despite a federal investigation and the presence of over 100 new African slaves in the area, the case was eventually dropped and nothing more came of the human trafficking violation.

In 1860 the slave smuggling ship Clotilda arrived right on schedule in Mobile, Alabama, from Africa with more than 115 people to be sold as human chattel. The Africans were quickly integrated into the slave society despite their differences in language, religion, and customs from the African Americans already enslaved in the area. Not only were these Africans different culturally from each other, they also did not feel a sense of community among the African Americans who had been born into southern slavery.

Five years after the capture, passage to America and enslavement, the Africans found themselves freed, but longing for home. They desperately wanted to return to their families and communities in Africa. With no resources to arrange passage back across the globe, they collaborated in creating a space for them to gather according to their collective customs. Despite some ethnic and cultural differences among the Africans, they all believed that property for the town, the land for their new community, should be owned by the entire group and distributed for use among the residents.

Church in Africa Town, AL Union Baptist Church in Africa Town, AL (image via waymarking.com)

Africa Town, established on property the founders purchased collectively, quickly included several structures, including a church, school, and homes built with the resources from the land. Despite their African traditions, they also incorporated American culture, and the Union Baptist Church was part of their town by to 1869. Their successful and quick development drew resentment from area whites who already encountered the ingenious and independent reputations of the Africans. The land was located about three miles north of Mobile in an area called Magazine Point, very near the location where at least thirty-two of the Africans had been working during their captivity.

The small group did not seek out residents to populate the town, and their growth was almost entirely internal, but their children and grand-children maintained the settlement beyond the founders’ lives. The town functioned until World War II. Africa Town residents continued to speak native languages and participate in traditional Africa ceremonies throughout the town’s life, and they worked to pass these traditions to their descendants. Although most black towns followed a traditional American model for civic leadership and structure, Africa Town residents used a much more African style. They built homes and community structures from local resources. For health care, they used a medicine man from their group, and they chose a chief to be their leader rather than appointing a mayor for a small town.

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