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.