From the front seat of his truck, Joe Womack points out the site where the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the US, landed in 1860, 52 years after it outlawed the international slave trade.
Womack, a retired army major who grew up in the area and is now the leader of a local environmental justice group, has parked on a patch of dirt under a stories-high interstate bridge, wedged between a paper mill, oil storage tanks, and an industrial railroad.
Between the tangle of heavy industry, it’s about as close as you can still get to the area where the Clotilda and the 110 kidnapped west Africans aboard are said to have first touched ground — and where the remains of what might in fact be the ship were recently discovered, thanks to unusual weather conditions.
Several years after emancipation many of the Clotilda survivors would return here to start an independent settlement governed by native traditions.
The Clotilda was sponsored by Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama businessman, on a bet that he could evade authorities and successfully land an illegal slave ship (he was caught but never convicted). The landing site, now covered by oil storage tanks, is on land still owned by the Meaher family, along with several other lucrative industrial plots in the area.
Today, this mostly black, low-income community has more than just a unique history as an against-the-odds bolthole of black independence in the Reconstruction south. Residents say they also have a serious industrial pollution and public health problem, and a group of about 1,200 have launched a lawsuit against the owners of a now-shuttered paper plant that was built in 1928 on land that was then owned by A. Meaher Jr.
“People born after 1945 seem to be dying before the age of 65,” said Womack, who grew up during the mid-century heydey of the International Paper plant that drew thousands of workers here but also, according to residents, spewed ash across the town.
The lawsuit claims International Paper was responsible for the release of hazardous chemicals into the air and local environment, and notes that these have been linked to bad health outcomes including cancer. It further claims International Paper failed to properly clean up the site when it closed 20 years ago.
The firm denies all the allegations.
After being smuggled into Mobile, survivors of the Clotilda were sold into slavery or kept on Meaher’s properties until the civil war ended two years later. After emancipation, many returned to this bank of the Mobile river and, unable to return to Africa, founded their own town in 1866 as Sylviane Anna Diouf documents in her book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama.
Africatown residents were able to remain independent, self-governed under African traditions and languages, and eventually saved enough money to buy land from their former owners. It is one of the first towns founded and controlled by African Americans in the United States.
Many of Africatown’s descendants still live here today.
And residents fear their unique past is in danger of being erased by industrialization, environmental pollution and, they say, high cancer rates. It is one of many poor communities of color around the country disproportionately affected by industrial pollution.
“We’re still fighting” says Womack when asked about Africatown’s past and the current legal fight. “This whole thing is called planned obsolescence and that is what we are fighting,” said Womack, who is the executive director of a local environmental justice organization known by its acronym, Chess.
Once home to around 10,000, Africatown’s population has dipped to about 3,000.
Abandoned houses line the town’s quiet and compact residential heart. Paper, asphalt, and petrochemical plants, pipelines, and coal terminals surround the town, which is just a few miles upriver from downtown Mobile. Residents say the surrounding industry presents serious health and safety issues, as does the continued threat of further industrialization (activists successfully beat back an oil storage tank farm proposal in 2015).
Pastor Christopher L. Williams Sr. says he noticed a high cancer rate almost immediately after moving to Africatown’s Yorktown Missionary Baptist church in 2006. “We must have done 20 funerals that year,” the vast majority due to cancer, he said.
Alarmed by the death rate, he sent out a questionnaire on cancer to the 150 or so active church members. About 100 people replied indicating they or a family member had cancer.
Since then, Williams says he has gone through a handful of lawyers trying to get legal help.
No localized cancer data on Africatown exists — the Alabama department of health averages data across the county — but Williams and others here all describe a similar trend: many longtime residents dying before the age of 65, very often from cancer.
Patricia J. Dock, a lifelong resident and Yorktown church member, rattles off her list — a husband who died of spine cancer, a younger brother who died of brain and lung cancer, and another brother who is now fighting leukemia. Her father died years ago from what doctors said was tuberculosis, but she believes was cancer.
Many here The Guardian speaks to are convinced a trail of cancer leads back to International Paper, which has denied any wrongdoing.
Today, all that is left of the plant are a few concrete stumps in an abandoned field. But Patricia Dock and other residents recalled what they say was ubiquitous ash emitted from the plant up until the 1980s and 90s, when pollution control measures used today started to kick in.
“The debris that would fall from the air would be so thick you couldn’t see three feet in front of you,” she said. New cars would rust out within a few years. Airborne pollution would cover the small vegetable gardens many families kept. “You’d wash it off and eat it. You didn’t have anything else,” she said.
Tightening EPA regulations helped to reduce polluting practices of paper mills around the country years ago. Although residents complain about the current industrialization they say it is not as bad. Past pollution has continued to haunt the town, says a lawsuit filed in Mobile County court last spring. The suit alleges that International Paper released dioxins and furans — highly toxic compounds shown to be directly linked to cancer — into the air, ground and water in amounts that exceeded EPA limits.
It also, it is claimed, failed to follow federal clean-up regulations before shuttering the mill and bulldozing the site in 2000, so that chemicals left behind have continued to spread into the surrounding area, affecting the health and property of residents. Moreover, the suit charges, International Paper and other defendants sought to hide these violations from the public and government officials.
“They were supposed to retrofit the plant so that it didn’t release harmful substances into the community and they chose not to do that,” said Donald W. Stewart, one of the lead prosecuting attorneys on the case. “They just shut it down and bulldozed the plant to the ground.”
He expects the case to go to trial sometime this year.
International Paper, which is based in Memphis and reported sales of $21 billion in 2016, has denied all allegations in the suit. A spokesman for the company said he could not comment on ongoing litigation. In response to a question on the health and safety practices of its production operations more generally, he said: “As with all our operations, we adhere to all federal, state, and local regulations and often go well beyond the standards set.”
Africatown’s plight has attracted the attention of Senator Cory Booker and former EPA environmental justice lead Mustafa Santiago Ali, who now works for a civil and human rights non-profit called the Hip Hop Caucus. Womack and others are eyeing tourism as a potential salve to local economic problems, though they say this has not had enough support from local officials. Under the future land use plan for Mobile, adopted last year, Africatown’s small residential area remains surrounded by land zoned as heavy industry, leaving a path open for new development.
Lorna Gail Woods, 69, a fifth-generation Africatown resident and descendant of a Clotilda survivor, has seen the town’s fortunes rise and fall. “It was people living here that thought they were living a good life and doing pretty good, and all of a sudden you come home and you get sick and in a few weeks or a month you’re dead,” she said. Her grandfather worked at the International Paper plant and died in the 1950s.
Residents say the town has lost its long tradition of self-sufficiency, as creeping industrialization has contributed to a decline in population and a loss of the local businesses. “We don’t have a store that we can stop in and get a bottle of water,” says Woods.
Like others here, Woods is also concerned about Africatown’s history being lost. She has kept a fastidious collection of historical artifacts and records on Africatown in the hopes of one day creating a museum to honor her ancestors and past residents. “I’m here as living hope for those that have gone on, that their life was not in vain,” she said.
W. Mae Jones, 79, who moved to Africatown in the 1970s, and whose husband died of cancer a few months ago, said her main concern is raising awareness of what the town has been through. “Before we can get it cleaned up, this community needs to be recognized for what it is and what it has been and what it was.”