Patterson had agreed to drive me around Africatown, an area where many of the ship’s captives finally settled and where Patterson himself was raised. We began the tour at this scrap of land by the Mobile River, beneath a soaring interstate bridge where a group of Clotilda slave ship descendants meet annually for their Under the Bridge festival, to “talk about how our ancestors got here and to have some food and dance,” Patterson said. There was no festival that day though and the atmosphere was muted; just one woman and her grandson played by the marshy water’s edge below the steady hum of traffic.
Walking back to his car, Patterson, a former sportswriter now in his 60s, recalled that growing up, Africatown was a thriving, self-sufficient place, where “the only time we needed to leave the community was to pay a utility bill” as everything needed was close to hand, aside from a post office.
Located three miles north of downtown Mobile, Africatown was founded by 32 of the original Clotilda survivors following emancipation at the end of the Civil War, in 1865. Longing for the homeland they’d been brutally ripped from, the residents set up their own close-knit community to blend their African traditions with American folkways, raising cattle and farming the land. One of the first towns established and controlled by African Americans in the US, Africatown had its own churches, barbershops, stores (one of which was owned by Patterson’s uncle); and the Mobile County Training School, a public school that became the backbone of the community.
However, this once-vibrant neighbourhood fell on hard times when a freeway was constructed in the heart of it in 1991, and industrial pollution meant that many of the remaining residents eventually packed up and left. “We couldn’t even hang out our washing to dry because it would get covered in ash [a product of the oil storage tanks and factories on the outskirts of Africatown],” said Patterson. With the high-profile closure of the corrugated box factory, International Paper, in 2000, and an ensuing public health lawsuit brought about by residents, Africatown’s community that had swelled to 12,000 people in the 1960s plummeted to around 2,000, where it stands today.