BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media goes to Mobile Alabama for an argument over history.
ROBIN MILES: “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. We cain help but cry.”
JAMES BALDWIN: When I was growing up I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I.
VICKII HOWELL: The song we used to sing was like,
Pick a bale of cotton
Pick a bale a day
Me and my wife can pick a bale of cotton,
Me and my wife can pick a bale a day.
[LAUGHS] That was my introduction to my history.
HENRY LOUIS GATES: You know, every African American that we know wants to know where in Africa they came from and then how they came here. You are the only African American I’ve ever met who could name the ship.
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: Just about everything is made up. You understand? You come here for a story, I’m giving you the truth. I’m giving you the facts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Historic dilapidated Africatown, a distraction or a shot of redemption?
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. News consumers, constantly pelted with red alerts and shiny objects minted mostly in Washington, still may be puzzled by how we arrived at this place. That’s because no tweet or talking head, pundit or a policy report can clarify the present. That requires a time-consuming examination of the past. Take the new research we discussed some weeks back, suggesting that many white citizens fear losing status more than losing health insurance or even economic security, it’s likely that fear was inflamed by Obama's presidency and Trump’s campaign and changing demographics, Fox News, all of that and more. But it’s not new.
As James Baldwin noted in a famous 1965 Cambridge debate, that fixation was spawned in Europe, brought to these shores before our nation was even born. It was the belief that Europe had the right to subjugate and destroy inferior civilizations. He called it white supremacy.
JAMES BALDWIN: When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I, that I was a savage about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those are the only books there were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he warned of the grave risk we all face in failing to confront that history.
JAMES BALDWIN: It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it’s a very grave moment for the West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s our defining issue, always in season and right now it’s specially ripe for exploration. The argument over our past, our attempts to rewrite it or paper over it are precisely what’s led us to where we are. But how to take it on and where? It was three separate stories within the past year about an ancient event that led us to Plateau, Alabama, also known as Africatown.
CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Along this muddy shore line, the last slave ship to bring human cargo -- Human Cargo -- from Africa to the US has resurfaced, almost 160 years after it disappeared just north of Mobile Bay.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Environmental and investigative reporter Ben Raines believes this is the resting place of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring slaves from Africa to North America.
BEN RAINES: And seeing this sort of dinosaur backbone ridge coming up out of the water and with all these giant iron spikes and then charred wood, and I just had this overwhelming feeling of -- that's the final resting place of the Clotilda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In January this year, it was reported across the globe. Fifty-two years after the banning of the international slave trade, a few men launched a ship on a bet to Benin to buy more than a hundred slaves from the king of Dahomey. Thus, did the Clotilda ferry the last shipment of so-called “black ivory” to our shores and then was ditched and burned in Mobile Bay, most likely in the summer of 1860. They really found that ship?
Upon further study, no.
BEN RAINES: So, of course, I’m a little disappointed. It’s better to be the guy who found THE ship than A ship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A month before the Clotilda was, briefly, found, Questlove, celebrated DJ and drummer for the Roots (his first name is Ahmir) was exploring his roots on PBS with the historian Henry Louis Gates and was gobsmacked by a revelation.
HENRY LOUIS GATES: Now, Ahmir, this is an article that was published in a newspaper called The Tarboro Southerner on July 14th, 1860. “Schooner Clotilda with Africans arrived in Mobile Bay today. A steamboat immediately took them up the river. It's the last known slave ship to come to America.” Your family settled less than two miles from an area -- Ahmir, you ready for this? -- known as Africatown, which was founded by survivors of the Clotilda.
AHMIR QUESTLOVE: [PAUSE] Mm-hmm. I’m frozen, man.
HENRY LOUIS GATES: You know, every African American that we know wants to know where in Africa they came from and then how they came here. You are the only African American I’ve ever met who could name the ship.
AHMIR QUESTLOVE: I’m on the absolute last ship that ever -- came here. [SIGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Questlove’s third great-grandparents were Charlie and Maggie Lewis, both born in Africa. Charlie’s brother was Cudjo Lewis, also known as Kossula or Kozoola or Kossola. And they all survived the Clotilda. The famed novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston landed on Cudjo’s doorstep in 1927 when he was 86. Quote, “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left,” which brings us to the third story that launched our trip to Alabama.
It happened just a couple of weeks ago when Hurston's book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, was published, 90 years after she wrote it. It’s Cudjo’s story told to her over three months, on his terms and in his dialect. He spoke of how the brothers who bet on their enslavement, Tim, Jim and Burns Meaher, and William Foster who captained The Clotilda, divided up the captives after their blood-soaked abduction and harrowing voyage through the Middle Passage.
ROBIN MILES, NARRATING: “Cap’n Tim Meaher, he tookee thirty-two of us.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is from the Barracoon audio book, narrated by Robin Miles.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. We cain help but cry.”
DEBORAH G. PLANT: Well, Viking wanted to publish the book but wanted Hurston to, as they put it, write it in language rather than dialect, and she was not inclined to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Deborah G. Plant is a scholar of Zora Neale Hurston's work and the editor of Barracoon. She says there may have been other reasons it never saw print.
DEBORAH G. PLANT: It was the Depression. Langston Hughes writes in his autobiography that the Negro was no longer in vogue. And then there is also the fact that Hurston had never published a book before. But I think it's really deeper than that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the time, some African-American writers decried Hurston's use of dialect. Richard Wright said it was a sop to white audiences to make Negro life seem quaint. But Plant says that for anthropologist language is a crucial lens into culture and character and that to deny Cudjo Lewis his voice would have been just another act of historical erasure.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “I tired talking now. You go home and come back. If I talkee wid you all de time I cain makee no garden. You want know too much. You astee so many questions….Go on home.”
DEBORAH G. PLANT: The black vernacular was not his mother tongue. He spoke some dialect of Yoruba. That was his first language. He has to learn this other language so that he can negotiate a world that was hostile to him. Anytime people of different languages are trying to communicate, they’ll create a lingua franca or a pidgin language. Now, when a generation comes that speaks that language as its first language, then it's a creole. So there is a blending in the case of Atlantic creoles, a blending of the grammatical structure of a West African language system with the lexicon of a European language system. And it is the grammar that's the most important part. The grammar is what determines a person's cognition, their mental makeup. This is why when you blend the grammar with the lexicon, you have this combined language of sorts but you will still have an African worldview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you give me an example of how his creole reflected a West African worldview?
DEBORAH G. PLANT: Yes, sure. Sure, that West African languages have no verb “to be” and so when Kossola says, my name is not Cudjo Lewis, it Kossola, he doesn't say it is Kossola, “it Kossola” because in that worldview there is no need to state “I am, you are, he/she/it is.” It’s a given. Your presence is a given. Your being is a given. It doesn’t have to be stated. It’s already apparent because you're right there looking at me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, he was hauled off to a place where his existence needed to be reaffirmed [LAUGHS] by others all the time.
DEBORAH G. PLANT: Yes.
[MUSIC/SINGING UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Africans of the Clotilda were denied justice, so they made their own law.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “We doan want nobody to steal, neither gittee drunk neither hurtee nobody. When we speak to a man whut do wrong de nexy time he do dat, we whip him.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were denied restitution for the theft of their freedom and labor.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “Cap’n Tim, you brought us from our country where we had lan! Why doan you give us piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were denied recognition of their humanity.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “Cap’n jump on his feet and say, ‘Fool…I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they made a new home, an island nation in a perilous sea. They would accommodate, but they would not be erased.
NARRATOR ROBIN MILES: “We call our village Africa Town. We say dat ‘cause we want to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we makee de Affica where dey fetch us.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, we go to Africatown where its defenders are still battling erasure.
JOE WOMACK: The three houses that I grew up in are all gone. My elementary school is gone and my high school is not a high school anymore and my college is gone. And then I looked around and my community was almost gone, and I said, well, you know, take everything. So I got to do what I can to try to, try to save, ‘cause this community is worth saving. It’s not only valuable to the people that live here but it's valuable to the rest of the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Africatown’s days of future past. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is on the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. Joe Womack had no ancestors on the Clotilda. His family moved to Africatown in 1910. But he is relentless in defending the place, just a few square miles, from continual encroachment and abuse. The truth is there’s not much he and his community can do. The Meahers, the family that originally bet the Clotilda would succeed in breaking the international slave ban, still are major landholders in Mobile County, including many acres in and around Africatown, perhaps because they’re not inclined to sell their land, preferring to lease it, instead, and we don’t know to whom the Meahers leased. But it would seem that any business with a plant to build or a pipeline to lay or something to dump can find a place to do it on the borders of Africatown.
JOE WOMACK: See this concrete and rebar and stuff? When they left, they just bulldozed the top and left everything underneath the earth. If there was any chemical leaks or anything, they’re still there. When the smoke came out of the stack, that ash would get on your car, if you didn’t wash that car at least every other day in three years it would rust out. Grinding up concrete that may have been polluted, selling it to people for their driveway, and those homes all the way here to our right, now you see --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really?
JOE WOMACK: Yeah, you see storage tanks in, of course, this big parking lot. At one time they were dumping all the raw sewage into Three Mile Creek. I mean, it was terrible. It was terrible!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What the hell is that thing?
JOE WOMACK: That was a steel scrap place or an aluminum scrap place. They have tar sands coming down the East Coast on rail cars, and so they want to ship it, bring it right through here, right through Africatown almost, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those nuggets were pulled from Joe Womack’s three-hour tour. He’s a retired Marine major but a fully engaged environmental activist for Africatown. And even after 20 years in the Corps, he doesn’t look tough. He seems to feel Africatown’s despoiling like an ache. He showed me and OTM producer Alana Casanova-Burgess the beauty of the place, its elegant mimosa trees, and sparkling waterways, while describing its wounds.
JOE WOMACK: We was always a walking community. You know, they got to the interstate going in and, and the bypass and all, so you can’t get from one neighborhood to it to the, to the next. You know, we used to walk through the neighborhood all of the time as a kid and we used to have fruit trees everywhere. I mean, I used to get sick of fruit. No one ever starved out here ‘cause you’re just walking down the street and pick, get you a plum, get you a pear, get you a peach, get you a fig, get you a persimmon, get you an apple. It, it was everywhere. We don't know if the ash coming out of smokestacks just killed off everything or not, I don't know.
Now, right across the street, this is where International Paper used to sit. They had smokestacks that were two stories high, two of ‘em, and those smokestacks would balloon smoke at least twice a day. When the smoke came out of the stacks, it was so thick it would, it would choke you. It was like snow in the month of July. Whenever the ash blew, if, if you were out playing baseball or something with your friends, you had to run home if your mother was washing clothes ‘cause you had to help her take the clothes in off the line because if she didn't get those clothes back in she had to rewash 'em.
Back here is, is Hog Bayou. This is all Hog Bayou. Now, see this concrete and rebar and stuff? When they left they just bulldozed the top and left everything underneath the earth. If there was any chemical leaks or anything, they’re still there. And they weren't made to come in here and clean it up or nothing. When, when we first started looking at stuff, we went to the EPA, we went to the Alabama Environmental Services and asked for reports, they didn't have none. When International Paper left, all of this was brown. And, and that was around 2000, so, so it's come back. And see, we want to reestablish ourselves to the water. This is where the slaves used to come back here and hunt and fish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I pointed to a wild turkey that had just popped out of the woods.
JOE WOMACK: Oh, turkey is coming back!
I hadn't seen one out here in two years. Ah, goodness, gracious that's fantastic.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: You’re really pleased, Joe.
JOE WOMACK: Oh yeah because, because there was a whole school of 'em and then one, one Thanksgiving we came back here and they were all gone. [LAUGHS] I think somebody came and got ‘em. And wow, I mean, he probably came from somewhere, somewhere around here. At least he's probably safe ‘til Thanksgiving.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
So we got a rich history and one that we would fight to preserve. If you've ever been to Jamestown or Williamsburg, Virginia, we think we can do the same thing here.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Could I ask you, what, what do you think the lesson is of Africatown?
JOE WOMACK: Well, we think Africatown is, is a real American success story. It's a real American success story. The struggles were not only back then but the struggles continue today, if people are still fighting for their freedom and fighting for their home and fighting for their rights and, and can't ever, you know, say the fight is over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that Africatown at some point had 12,000, 15,000 people here?
JOE WOMACK: Fifteen-thousand people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now there are three.
JOE WOMACK: About three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how is it a success story?
JOE WOMACK: Because it did build up to be as big as it was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
JOE WOMACK: But it still survives today, even against the odds. And right now, with, with being surrounded by industry and industry trying to collapse it, it's still, it’s still pushing back and we think it's gonna make a good comeback because it has something that America wants. And America is reaching out for history, for a good story, and we think we got a good, a good story here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Joe says they want to reestablish themselves to the water. That’s Africatown’s glory, its green and glistening landings along ten miles of the Chickasaw Creek. The town itself is tiny and shrinking, with an apparent cancer cluster, and accompanying lawsuit, to boot. But there is a plan to build the Africatown Connections Blueway, to preserve the natural spaces, habitat and waterways here, to build the community and draw visitors. And there was, in fact, money, $315 million in Deepwater Horizon oil spill money, BP money, but it was directed elsewhere, to roads, infrastructure and other projects.
Yes, some three and a half million will go toward an Africatown welcome center and tourism program, but welcome to what? There seems to be nothing in the kitty to fix Africatown’s blocks of tiny dilapidated and often vacant houses or to clean up the industry’s mess.
JOE WOMACK: And I've been watching the community just lose ground and lose ground and lose ground, and the guys in here, they, they make deals. You know, the guy come -- they come here for your arm and you give ‘em a finger and then the next time you give ‘em a thumb, the next time you give ‘em a hand. Then they come back for your elbow. And then they just keep coming back. They're not gonna ever stop coming ‘til they get it all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joe speaks with so much love of this place, even as he tells us stories of a lousy deal to run a pipeline under the school and how the one artifact cherished by the Clotilda Africans, the ship’s bell that warned them of rough weather during their voyage, was sent off some years ago to be cleaned and was mislaid or, more likely, stolen. Every effort to preserve the past and celebrate the present seems to be met with an indifference so profound it borders on malice.
Take the cemetery, one of the town’s few remaining historical sites, the graves of the slaves are on sunken ground due to bad drainage and proximity to an ever-expanding highway. Many of the stones have toppled, are chipped or broken, and they’re set heartbreakingly close together. But that’s just how it was.
JOE WOMACK: Now, most of your older graves are gonna be on the side near the vegetation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Over there.
JOE WOMACK: Oh yeah, closer to the woods. Now, when they, as they expanded it -- the, the Highway Department bought that land and they began to expand the highway and, as they were expanding the highway, one time they, they dug up some bone. And so, they stopped digging and they, they examined the bone and they say, oh, that was nothing but dog bones, went back to digging. That’s the other sign I was telling you about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [OFF-MIC] They said it was dog bones?
JOE WOMACK: That’s what they said, it’s these dog bones. I never believed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now he directs our attention to the newer cemetery.
JOE WOMACK: It, it’s orderly. It’s more clean. It’s m, it’s, it’s, it’s a -- the ground is level. But there is one big difference. The newer ones over this side, most of the headstones are facing to the west. In the older one, the headstones are facing to the east, where they came from, toward Africa. And they always wanted to go back home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You okay?
JOE WOMACK: Oh yeah. It’s a, an emotional story sometime, even when I tell it. [LAUGHS]
[SOUND OF CAR IGNITION, CAR DOORS CLOSING]
We're just about through. The rest of it is riding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For all the incursions, all the assaults, he meets, he organizes, he does his tour, his public speeches. I’ve watched them on YouTube. They’re simple, about fairness and respect, how it’s wrong to snuff out Africatown like a spent cigar, when it’s paid its dues long ago and pays still. And though Joe is not related to those in the old cemetery whose graves face east, he’s driven by the same longing for home.
Nothing lifts the spirits better than shrimp, grits and a cold drink in an unfussy bar called Kazoola, owned by a descendant.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: There’s a Kazoola burger.
[OFF-MIC]: Do you have lemonade?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joe told us that when he was growing up, people didn’t want to talk about the origins of Africatown. That was no surprise to Vickii Howell who grew up a few minutes away in Mobile. She’s president and CEO of the MOVE Gulf Coast Community Development Corporation, actively spreading the word about the Africatown Connections Blueway, back when she was a kid.
VICKII HOWELL: I don't think I even remember much about Africatown at all. I knew about Plateau. It just wasn't talked about. [LAUGHS] And, most importantly, it wasn't taught. You know, I didn't know anything about -- really about black history at all. I remember the race riots at Murphy High School. I remember my mother telling me about Vivian Malone. They were classmates and she was the first black to graduate from the University of Alabama. And I remember Birdie Mae Davis. She was my grandmother's cousin and she was the first black to go to Murphy High School, and then she had to sue to get into Murphy High School. I just remember, I remember those type things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's how you knew black history?
VICKII HOWELL: Pretty much because I went to Catholic schools, and one of the things I learned was some songs of the South, and I remember the books. The song we used to sing was, like --
Pick a bale of cotton
Pick a bale a day
Me and my wife can pick a bale of cotton,
Me and my wife can pick a bale a day.
[LAUGHS] That was my introduction to my history. I didn’t really learn about black history at all. I didn’t learn it in grade school. I didn’t learn it in high school.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did --
VICKII HOWELL: I didn’t learn it in college.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you learn?
VICKII HOWELL: I learned because I wrote; I wrote the Civil Rights Heritage Trail in Birmingham. If you go to the Civil Rights Institute, all these signs you'll see, about six feet tall, about two feet wide, I wrote those signs. I was a reporter at the Birmingham News. I covered civil rights history, interviewing people, reading books. I just learned on my own. I mean, I read a letter from Birmingham Jail when I was 32 years old in my own kitchen, and I'm thinking, I'm an English major, why didn’t I never read this, why did I never study this?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did you get interested in the history of Africatown? When did you find out about its unique nature?
VICKII HOWELL: Well, when I came here, there was a story I was told was this was a group of Africans who, after they got off the boat, they created their own community, so I was expecting to see businesses. I'm looking to see schools. I'm looking to see a whole intact community that’s kind of like Wakanda, [LAUGHS] that hasn’t been touched by colonialists. And that's not what I saw when I came home, and I was really disappointed.
But then, looking at the history of just the black community as a whole, I saw that this is part of the same narrative. There is no such thing as independence, if people don't recognize your humanity, if they don't recognize your community and if they, and if they say, hey, I don't want to build this in my community but hey, there's a black community over here, just dump it over there. And, and that's what I think the, the people here have been suffering through. But it was just sad to see it that way, especially knowing that this area -- like my mother told me before she died, this is not just about Africatown, this is about all African Americans, a slice of our history too.
These people can tell you exactly where they came from. Most African Americans can't do that. I may never know where my family originated from. And so, by preserving their history, we're preserving our own.
And I really love what this, what these people stood for, how they did what they did, how they built a community, that actually when they couldn't get justice anyplace else, they built their own, and how -- I don't know if I really kind of in my heart feel like African Americans can do the same thing, ‘cause sometimes I wonder. I look at, after having the first black president, I was just thinking that things would get so much better and now we've regressed in so many ways, it’s, it’s really disappointing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A backlash?
VICKII HOWELL: Yeah, a back, a backlash, and so, you know, after 150 years you wonder, is it really worth doing it this way? Is there another way we can do this? And so, there are some people who are actively looking at creating, going back to the idea of a black nationhood. There are some people who are talking about that. What would a Wakanda look like? A self-contained community, how would it produces own food? How would it protect its water? How would it just behave? I'm not saying that we’d necessarily go back to African ways, necessarily, because we are Americans. But we’re Americans, it seems like we have a target on our backs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I ask about the upcoming ceremony for the Blueway Project to connect the people to the water and to each other and, ultimately, their history.
VICKII HOWELL: Saturday, June the 16th from 3 to 7, and it’s going to be kind of a soft launch of the project, and there's going to be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And it’s going to be under the bridge, under the Africatown Cochran Bridge. The bridge that divides the community is where it’s going to be, bringing the community together under that bridge, next to the river. The students created this wonderful plan, and I thought it was just going to be on the water though. I thought it was just going to be here, a boat landing here, a kiosk there. But they've come up with something about how to integrate the water systems in the community in a preservation, conservation, neighborhood development plan. Hopefully, this, this event will kick that off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it look a little more like Wakanda?
VICKII HOWELL: [LAUGHS] No, it was -- it wasn't Wakanda but it, it felt to me like a community being built from the ground up or being literally rebuilt from the ground up. It can be whatever the community wants it to be, it's just there's the power -- powerful people that still want to have their way with Africatown that may not include what we're planning on doing. So the hope is that Mobile will embrace this plan and it will embrace Africatown and see it as -- I wouldn't say recompense, but making, making peace with its past.
I’d say my biggest concern is right now is that all of this attention turns into economic development for the community, that, that we get these houses rebuilt, that businesses come in, that we get a new museum, focus on our school and all the things that will be necessary to create an environment where people can make money, they can have tax revenues and business revenues, so they can create and generate wealth because this country’s wealth was built off the backs of these people, my people.
The wealth of this country, this world, really, has been built on the back of Africa. We have to make sure that this community benefits from this. I want to see careers created. I want to see our kids better educated so that they can build wealth, generational wealth that we've not been allowed to build over all these years. That's why our communities look like they do. That's why the poverty numbers are the way they are, because if we had been allowed, like Dr. King said, to have gotten our 40 acres and a mule, if we'd been given free land and assistance on how to grow on that land, how much better our whole country would be.
So now, if the stars are aligning in such a way that that can happen, I want to make sure that that economic opportunity is captured in this community. The city -- and the city will prosper. So it’s like a rising tide lifts all boats, except for the boats that have holes in them. So [LAUGHS] the idea for me is to plug the holes in our boats so that when the tide rises all of us get a chance to ride with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And with public support from even outside the state, you think that's helpful?
VICKII HOWELL: That may be the only way it happens [LAUGHING] because we here in Alabama, well, we don't have a whole lot of help and a whole lot of support. We need to preserve this area. We need to be able to save our housing. We need to be able to save our schools. We need to be able to save our cemeteries, our history. We need to be reconnected with our water. And we need to have healthy relationships, not just with ourselves but with the world, too, and with Africa.
People in Benin want to make peace with us. They want to reconcile with the Africans that they allowed to be brought over here. They, they are genuinely sorry for that. So I’m so excited about the opportunity. The stars are in alignment. I don't [LAUGHS] -- I really don't know what it is. It could not be an accident that that African ambassador came here at the time when they thought they found -- even if they didn't find a ship, he came! I've been told that a lot of people have been trying to do things in this town for a long time. Plans have come and they've gone.
And I was talking to an elected official just yesterday and she, she was saying, you know, Vickii, people have been talking about this for 30 years and, and nothing has changed.
I said, but what if this time it’s different? How fortuitous is it that Ben Raines, a reporter from AL.com, because of some shifting tides and something, and it’s -- and here's the bones of this, this vessel are popping up here and he said, could this be the Clotilda? It looks like it could be. It’s in the right location. You know, and then on top of that the ambassador of Benin just happened to be in Mobile at the time, coming to say, are we gonna to commit to this, a reconciliation between our country and Africatown? And that day, he did the absolution. I didn't get a chance to go. I hate that I didn't go. But I saw the video and he was, he was crying. He said, the ancestors cannot be a peace because of what we did.
AMBASSADOR HECTOR POSSET: I’m just begging them, forgive us ‘cause we sold them. Our forefathers sold their brothers and sisters. May their souls rest in peace, perfect peace. They should forgive us. I feel so sad.
VICKII HOWELL: They, they can’t rest and we can't rest until we make restitution, until we make this wrong right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ambassador to Benin, the Clotilda false alarm, the newly-published story of Cudjo Lewis, all drawing attention to Africatown, which is perhaps the most profound expression of collective loss and longing for home a nation riven by racism has ever produced.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
VICKII HOWELL: This can’t be an accident. It can't be. It just can't be. What if this is the time now? And, if it is, don't we need to take advantage of it and don't we need to tell people about it? And don't we need to invite them to come help us make this a reality, because now we can begin a true process of healing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Africatown Connections Blueway is a vision to unite people through water and through a great story. Africatown was birthed by a proud people wrenched from their land, enslaved for five years and then marooned. Yeah, the Blueway is about urban renewal but it's about national redemption, too.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Coming up, but what if it’s not? What if it’s just a distraction?
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: That, that Hurston lady what wrote this, if you look at her work, you would know she said it's a fable. If you go research her work, you would see they just jumped on her about plagiarism and stuff, that she plagiarized stories and made up stories, yeah, made up stories and stuff. But Cudjo Lewis didn't know nothing about where he came from. He was just a child. All of ‘em were children. They don't know anything about where they came from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is on the Media.
This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. And this is the part about dissenters, the people who, for reasons political or personal, particular to each, do not believe the stories or don’t engage with them, don’t grapple with the challenges they raise, the agony of evidence in the face of aversion or pain, as we shall see. But let’s start with this.
CLEON JONES: The “cargo” that was on the Clotilda survived, mingled, strived and made a difference in this community and in Mobile County, as a whole.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s leftfielder Cleon Jones of the 1969 Miracle Mets, one of Africatown’s leading native sons, in a video posted by local Alabama news site AL.com shortly after what seemed to be the recovery of the Clotilda. Also in that video, Lorna Gail Woods.
LORNA GAIL WOODS: And I’m always happy to tell this story ‘cause, as I tell this story, tears can come falling out of my eyes, unbeknownst to me, because I feel their spirit saying, tell this story, somebody else need to hear this story and be glad that this story is being recognized in this day and time, that it wasn’t just a fluke. It was a real story. It was a real. If their story can really be told [ ? ] and it would mean so much to how people would view this area. It will be like a highlight for Mobile.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Her great-great-grandfather was Charlie Lewis, Cudjo’s older brother and shipmate on the Clotilda, which means, incidentally, that she’s related to Questlove. She was out of town at her nephew’s graduation when we were in Mobile, so we found another descendant of the Africans said to have been on the Clotilda. He asked us not to use his name but here’s what he told us.
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: You, you’re not dealing with reality. These are my grandparents. As a kid, we had to look up where our grandparents come from. We had to find out where they come from because people told us our grandparents come on slave ships, you understand? And we were smart, we had to go look that up and know where we could find that, Department of Commerce. You got Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan. The government, after the Civil War, this place was locked down. You couldn't get a scooter up in here and nothing else up in this place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that the Clotilda never came here?
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: Well, all I'm saying is you use your mind and you think --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re --
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: You use your mind and you think, and all you got to do is go to the Department of Commerce, they have a register of every boat ever come into this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But didn’t he sneak in, I asked him.
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: Snuck in? That, all that’s coming from Captain Foster's journals, so that's Captain Foster's story. You're not dealing with reality. You're dealing with somebody's story. They put their spin on their story. It's not the Africans' story. It is not the descendants’ story. It's somebody else story. They want to make money off the descendants but nobody want to recognize the descendants.
Not only, not only that, the few descendants there is, they don't know enough. You’re talking and interviewing people but they don't know enough to comment on nothing. They’re just talking something that’s a hearsay. They never went and found out where Cudjo Lewis come from. They never went and got his birth certificate. They never went and got his bill of sales, where he was sold at. You understand? The same way with the rest of ‘em, they never brought -- none of them brought that up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about Zora Neale Thurston's account of what Cudjo said?
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: Cudjo was a child when he come here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was 19!
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: He wasn’t 19. You know where he come from? [BOTH SPEAK/OVERLAP]
He didn't come from no Africa. He's not, he’s not even recognized with the rest of those slaves that on the plaque. He's a totally different slave from those guys.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying his story is made up?
AFRICAN DESCENDANT: Just about everything is made up. You understand? You come here for a story, I'm giving you the truth, I’m giving you the facts. And ain’t nobody going to deal with the truth unt -- until you get to the families. So the family, we have, we have books, records, documents but it's the family business and we guard that because everybody is making money. Like, they’re all making books but they haven’t donated anything to the families. They haven't donated to any schools here. They haven't donated to nobody. They haven't set up a scholarship fund for the descendants of the Clotilda. They haven't done anything!
So why should we share anything with everybody that don't do nothing for us and so why should we give up information to somebody that don't do anything for us? And when you all come down here, you all come down here to deal with this story, but it's not necessarily true. That's a man's story named Captain Foster. It’s not reality.
[AUDIO UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s certainly true that the log of Captain William Foster is a key part of the research around the Clotilda affair, but it’s also true he could have gone to jail for his exploit or even executed, though the judges were lenient in Alabama. Still, our interview with the descendent left us shaken and confused. So we took a walk.
CHARLES TORREY: I'm Charles Torrey, the research historian for the History Museum of Mobile. And, if you look, you will find Cudjo Lewis's naturalization papers. That will tell you. Now, they should be in the file.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we know that he spoke to people. That's not being denied. What is being denied is the veracity of his story, that he was too young to have experienced what he said he experienced, which is also contrary to his own account. He was captured, he says, when he was 19. So, you know, that's not the same as being a four-year-old or a five-year-old child. So there's just a lot of things that he's saying. And you said that you did see the naturalization papers.
CHARLES TORREY: I think so, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if you saw the naturalization papers, well, then, ipso facto, he wasn't born in the United States.
CHARLES TORREY: But see, the original -- the captain's account is right here.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: What are you looking at?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I am right now looking through handwritten -- the logs, the famous Foster logs of, of his trip on the Clotilda to get --
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: They're photocopies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- to capture people. They're photocopies, exactly. I also see here an article written October 17th, 1855 about the Clotilda itself, how beautiful it is and how advanced. Let's see if there's a transcription of those logs, which are a little hard to find, maybe not. But -- it says here, “The Clotilda, the last slaving schooner from the United States, Captain William Foster of the Schooner the Clotilde.
[TWO SPEAK AT ONCE/OVERLAP]
Just, this is written in his hand. They gave me --
NICK BEESON: He found it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh what did -- oh!
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: What did you find, Chuck?
CHARLES TORREY: Foster certificate, and that’s it.
[PAPER RUSTLING SOUNDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The United States of America v. William Foster.
CHARLES TORREY: Yeah, mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Transcript of his trial for --
CHARLES TORREY: Slavery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- violating --
CHALRES TORREY: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- the prohibition against international slave trading.
CHARLES TORREY: Yeah, but this is -- these are -- here, this is the naturalization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the naturalization.
CHARLES TORREY: Mm-hmm, one of them.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: It says here, Africa, Africa?
CHARLES TORREY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
CHARLES TORREY: Tony Thomas, Archie Thomas. There they -- there they are, Charles Lewis, Africa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
CHARLES TORREY: Joe Reed, Africa. This is -- these are the names -- it’s the --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
CHARLES TORREY: Asa Kibbie, those are the slaves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm, Asa Kibbie.
CHARLES TORREY: Cudjo Lewis.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Africa, age 21.
CHARLES TORREY: October 23rd, 1868.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay.
CHARLES TORREY: Well, are you fairly convinced now? [LAUGHS] Are you convinced now that he did exist?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That he came from Africa.
CHARLES TORREY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this is --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Our descendant dismissed Sylviane A. Diouf’s Dreams of Africa in Alabama, a meticulous account of Africatown’s founding as a fraud, her documents, several of which we saw in the Mobile Museum, also frauds. He called Zora Neale Hurston a plagiarist and, well, in fact, she has been charged with that. And he called Cudjo Lewis a suggestible child grown old. Newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, official records, Foster’s criminal trial, all frauds. The Clotilda, he said, would never have been unable to enter the port of Mobile. He seems wrong about all of that. And yet, his larger point, the one to which he returns again and again, is as right as fresh air and sunshine sparkling on the water. And that is, this is not the real story.
DESCENDANT: Like I’m saying, you, you come to a car wreck and you want to take care of the people that was hurt, but when you all come to report, you report on the car, just, just as though the car means something and you leave the people laying out in the street dying. Do you understand?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's not about a slave ship or the last living slave. As a reporter, I see those as narrative hooks, reminders, paths to empathy. The descendent called them “white people’s stories, distractions,” the real story being slavery’s lasting impact, its evolution from Jim Crow to mass incarceration. It's about injustice, reparations, not Cudjo, not the Clotilda.
DESCENDANT: They tried to find it. They had a group here making tons of money. And what did I tell you about the car wreck in the street? They had people coming in and divers and everything looking for it, and they didn't find anything, because there wasn’t nothing to find. Do you understand?
If you read Captain Foster's journal, he'll tell you they burnt the boat up down in Dauphin Island Park where they burned it up. You got this? So why are you looking for something that was burned up because they were working -- they were running from the federal government.
So, so if you read or believe the story, you would know the boat was burned up, so why are you all spending all this money talking about looking for a boat and, at the same time, you’re not giving the descendants nothing? You're not giving the descendants a dime! You can never have anything until you take care of the people that was actually harmed, the people that actually built this place, built -- stayed in that community. Their families suffered with that community. And we’re being poisoned every day, chemicals in the air, chemicals in the ground, chemicals in the water, poisoned every day.
But the way you all do it, you all leave them laying in the street and report on everything but the, the sick people laying in the street.
So whatever you do is not going to come to nothing because you don’t -- you’re not tackling it as a group. It’s -- you’re dealing with an individual thing when the group is what’s -- what matters. And that's where we come from, group, group, group! You understand? And that, and that’s, that's the biggest liability to our community today. It's not a group [ ? ]. It’s an individual thing. You understand? And that, and that -- that's all [ ? ] So it's a group thing. It's not about me, it's not about you, it's about us. Same way with your reporting, it's about us. Got it? You all ready to go?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Several people in Mobile suggested quietly that the Meahers, who are an influential Mobile family, don’t much care to hear these Clotilda stories discussed and that some, at times, have denied them altogether, just like the slave descendant. We emailed and left messages for members of the family who are cited on property lease records, no response. Alana, though, finally did reach a Meaher.
ANNIE-MARIE MEAHER: Hello.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Hello, good afternoon. I’m, I’m trying to reach Annie-Marie Meaher?
ANNIE-MARIE MEAHER: Who’s calling, please?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Hi, my name is Alana Casanova. I’m calling from WNYC Radio in New York. [PAUSE] Am I speaking with Mrs. Meaher?
ANNIE-MARIE MEAHER: Yes.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Hi, my name is Alana. I’m a reporter with a show called On the Media and we’re doing a story about Africatown near Mobile.
ANNIE-MARIE MEAHER: Yes, and we have nothing to say.
[HANG UP][MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This, surely, is the most common kind of dissent, having nothing to say, saying nothing, doing nothing, being closed to stories of what we haven’t experienced of, say, poverty, racism or fear. On the Media has lately devoted much of its time to examining the stories we tell ourselves. But, of course, just as important, maybe even more so, are the stories we adamantly refuse to hear.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
The heavy lifting on this episode of On The Media was done by Alana Casanova-Burgess, with help from Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. And our show was edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios.
And one last thing before we go. We have a special request for an upcoming show that’s continuing the theme of historical memory. First, look around you. You probably didn’t even notice it but you’re surrounded, on the streets, the buildings, the parks, the bridges, everywhere: names. Who exactly were these people that we’ve chosen to remember? What were their stories? For instance, visitors to WNYC in Lower Manhattan might unknowingly pass by King Street, named after Rufus King, an abolitionist, and Houston Street, named after William Houston, a slave owner, just one block apart.
We want to hear about the names around you, wherever you are in the country, not just the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts but the Smiths, the Clarks, maybe the Garfields. We want to know who they were and, especially, whether you’d still choose to memorialize them, today. To let us know what you’ve found, go to onthemedia.org/names and record a message. That’s onthemedia.org/names. Tell us your name and where you are and what you’ve learned about a name near you, and we might use your recording for that future show.
FEMALE LISTENER: There is a bridge in Savannah, Georgia called Talmadge Bridge and it’s named after a guy who fought tirelessly to keep the public schools in Savannah segregated. I think we can do better than that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.