Alabama's Africatown and Citizen Diplomacy

February 27, 2009
Mobile Bay Alabama

About the Author: Gregory L. Garland serves as Media and Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs.

It’s far too easy for us in the U.S. Department of State to miss out on one of the most important trends in international relations: the expanding role of sub-national governments – states, counties, and cities. That’s because the core of State’s mission, and its bureaucratic culture, is to manage official relationships between national governments. Yet it is precisely in those places far beyond Washington, DC, that private American citizens and their local officials are piecing together hundreds of links connecting them to communities around the world.

One of those places is Mobile, Alabama. Mobile justifiably takes great pride in a heritage going back three centuries. Its Mardi Gras, though not as famous as the one in New Orleans, dates to colonial French rule. Most Americans have at some time heard the famous battle cry of Admiral David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Few texts mention another chapter of Mobile’s history, the arrival of the last recorded slave ship from Africa to North America, the Clotilde, in 1860, just before the start of the Civil War.

One hundred and ten survivors of the Middle Passage voyage from what is now Benin met their fate on the selling block and entered into slavery. At the end of the Civil War, a few dozen returned to build homes near where they had landed, some with the idea of returning to Africa where they had lived most of their lives. The first two generations continued to speak their African language and maintained their communal traditions, starting schools, a bank, a church, and a cemetery. Their settlement became the heart of segregated Mobile’s black community. Whereas elsewhere in the South, memories of Africa faded with new generations born in America, they lingered longer in Africatown than anywhere else. People living today still remember some of the original settlers, the last of whom died in 1935.

Alabamans deserve credit for keeping this story alive. Two decades ago, Alabama Governor Guy Hunt (who recently died) signed into law legislation launching the Alabama-Benin Forum – a tribute to Africatown and an attempt to reach out to the Republic of Benin. Community political leaders everywhere understand that economic development is usually the best justification for a state or local government to look overseas. Alabama is no different, and has framed the Africatown story in terms of foreign trade. The Port of Mobile has always functioned as the state’s window on the world, whether to Africa (for slaves), Central America (for bananas), or currently to Germany (for steel and automobiles). Yet, restoring the full appreciation of the legacy of Africatown involves more than a question of tourism or foreign trade potential. Recovering the past -- good and bad -- is essential to a community’s healing, something we have learned from the experiences of South Africa, Germany, and the American South, among other places.

Under the leadership of Robert Battle, a group of Mobilians have organized to commemorate their legacy in the form of the Africatown Museum. It’s still a work in progress. In the shadow of the massive Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, Battle and his volunteers have assembled the core of a museum in a double-wide trailer, hoping eventually to replace it with something more permanent. It sits in the old heart of Africatown, now a park-like open space looking down onto the harbor. Outside, stands the church established by the founders with the cemetery by its side. Inside, Battle has collected the memorabilia of 150 years, from photographs of the original slave ship to more recent items belonging to the vital community the survivors spawned. The community's rich legacy includes such Major League baseball stars as Hank Aaron and former Miracle Mets star Cleon Jones, who is an active board member of the museum.

The heirs to Africatown, however, understand that extending a hand to Africa means more than dollars and cents. They feel in their bones what the rest of us can start to sense at a distance: here in Mobile, newly-freed Africans succeeded in building a community of their own that drew upon their own African knowledge. That community helped to define the diverse city that Mobile has become. That’s why Benin deserves a special place in Alabama. It would be fitting if the flag of Benin were to join the pantheon of flags cherished by Mobilians of different heritages.

These Mobilians are true citizen diplomats. While they appreciate attention from the Department of State (such as they got from me in my visit in late January), they don’t need us to move ahead. Through their own efforts, they have re-established the link with Africa and are intent on passing that knowledge to their children. On the other hand, we in old-fashioned diplomacy very much could benefit from Africatown and all it represents. Ultimately, the power of Africatown lies in its democratic essence, private citizens in a part of our own country who by looking inward, discovered a past and a future overseas.

Comments

Comments

Jonathan B.
|
California, USA
March 9, 2009

Jonathan in California writes:

As I've traveled abroad, I've noticed an increasingly important role for states, cities, and regions. Here in Los Angeles, for example, there are organizations and institutions that deal directly with foreign dignitaries and leaders. Last summer in Korea, I learned of an organization that promoted trade between Korea and the 13 Western American states: Idaho, Utah, California, Washington, etc. These semi-official, lower level interactions and exchanges provide a vast amount of soft power on behalf of the U.S. and certainly reinforces global peace and stability.

Dennis
|
Wisconsin, USA
February 28, 2009

Dennis in Wisconsin writes:

This report illustrates how we and those we know locally can engage people a world away.

joe
|
Tennessee, USA
February 28, 2009

Joe in Tennessee writes:

The Logan Act may well be one reason why many do not do more.

When in exporting long ago, the Congolese Government ...hey, it changed three times back then- was trying to sue over the late arrival/shipments of parts for the timber industry. The premises was listed under a threat to the viable economy of the country. What if the peanuts were shipped to a third world country? Would the States be liable? Would it be a violation or consideration of violation if it adversely affected U.S. interest in such a country?

By actual interpretation, should not the Banking Industry in the United State be held accountable for known fraudulent investments in some foreign countries as it adversely affected their national security? Especially those who used foreign investments via mutual funds?..or is this why the U.S. Govt is involving itself in the exchange of stock for these bankers? Acting as a Scarlett Pimpernel so to speak?

The Lighthouse in Crete is much nicer by the way. Tell Pop I did go back.

Constantine D.
|
District Of Columbia, USA
March 9, 2009

Constantine in Washington, DC writes:

I read the report with much interest and congratulate you for such a rich contibution. You have not only spent the time to visit with some of the principal actors behind this outreach effort ( such as Bob Battles, Cleon Jones, Etc..) but you have conducted research that revealed you the historic ties which has been providencially established between the people of Alabama and their brothers and sisters in the Republic of Benin. Those ties are best related in the bestseller entitled: Dreams of Africa in Alabama written by Dr. Sylviane Diouf. But we must also add to the report the contributions and ultimate sacrifice consented to this cause by the former Mayor of Prichard, the late John H. Smith...... I am also from Benin and have traveled to Africatown at several occasions since 1983 and currently act as the International Coordinator of the Community Connections Committee ( Al-Benin). I wish to share the report with Beninese official, the Embassy in Wash along with the African Diaspora though Jamii-Africa.

DipNote
|
District Of Columbia, USA
March 9, 2009

DipNote Blogger Gregory L. Garland writes:

@ Constantine in Washington, DC -- Thank you for your valuable comment. You have correctly pointed out the enormous contribution of local officials and Diouf's "Dreams of Africa." My goal was and is to help bring the Africatown story to a broader audience. It is a story that must be told over and over, by each succeeeding generation so that we as Americans and Africans -- not just Alabamans -- will not only remember it, but also learn from the survivors of the Clotilde about the strength of the human spirit in the most difficult of circumstances. You are very much a part of the process of telling the story, and in that I encourage you strongly.

James
|
Florida, USA
August 4, 2009

James in Florida writes:

Histry is so good, and I just hope it is correct. My Father, Henry Myatt, came from that area and I do not know his people and that is sad

Please keep searching,diging,and posting this information

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