A version of this story by @stevie is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 15.
This year, many in the nation have turned an observant eye toward Africatown, a small community on the north side of Mobile, Alabama---first for excitement over the discovery of a sunken cargo ship that was thought to be the historic slave ship the Clotilda, and second for the publication of Zora Neale Hurston's national bestseller, Barracoon, which portrays a story of the people on that ship. But there are many other reasons to follow the happenings in Africatown.
Many of the modern residents of Africatown are descendants of those brought to America on the Clotilda. American businessmen tried to smuggle in enslaved Africans, even though the transatlantic slave trade had already been abolished for decades in the United States. The end of the Civil War effectively freed those who had just arrived on the Clotilda, and many of those people settled on the delta shores just north of Mobile, Alabama, developing a self-sustaining and self-governing community that continues on today. The roots of community realization run deep, in spite of the many trials residents face, including institutionalized marginalization and exploitation.
For those versed in environmental history, it's not hard to imagine what came next. In the years following the founding of Africatown, it became an industrial backstop for Mobile. The area had its first industrial development with paper mills. Then in 1928, a paper plant owned by International Paper opened an operation that poisoned the air, land, and water for many years. While this plant is now closed, there are others that followed suit, setting up shop in Africatown, and draining the community of the healthy natural resources on which it depends.
In 2016, the community developed a neighborhood plan with the City of Mobile that outlines their vision for the community. Ramsey Sprague, president of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, highlights this document as the driver for future development in the Africatown community.
"When we started looking at that neighborhood plan, it was clear that residents didn't want any further industrialization of the land surrounding the community," says Ramsey. "Many people wanted access to the water. There were already several places where people fish and launch boats. People were already using the water, but they don't have the infrastructure there to support much of this type of access."
The Mobile County Training School Alumni Association took this as a cue, and applied for technical assistance from the National Park Service. Together, they decided that a water-based trail would not only highlight some of the interest points along historic Africatown, but also connect the community to the isolated Africatown USA State Park in Prichard.
"We wanted more green space, and fewer industrial real estate development activities happening along the waterfront," says Ramsey. "We wanted some type of process that would establish that the residents and surrounding neighborhoods utilize the water, and that they want more access, not less. The Blueway seemed to be a positive way forward to show decision makers that the community was serious about pushing back on the dead industrial real estate along the water, and that they wanted to see more activities that generated healthier outcomes."
Once the group received technical assistance, they started reaching out to potential project partners. With two years of work on the Blueway, project partners span all sides: from local nonprofits such as the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) and Clean Healthy Educated Safe & Sustainable (CHESS), to the Alliance Institute, based out of New Orleans. There are foundation partners such as the Alabama Coastal Foundation, and larger organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy's GulfCorps program and the Mobile County NAACP. They have also brought in local government partners, such as the City of Prichard and County of Mobile. From a resilience building standpoint, this project stands on tall pillars through the support garnered by partners across many spectrums. Ramsey remarks, "It's an exhaustive list because we recognize we have so few resources. We don't want to neglect acknowledging any of the resources that have come to assist. Most organizations and individuals in this process have contributed no money, but they did contribute ideas, relationships, and networking, and those types of things go a long way."
Partners at Mississippi State University helped to design plans for a boat launch site at one of the interest points along the Blueway under the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge. It's access points like these that MEJAC sees as a clear way to protecting and highlighting how people use the water. Ramsey affirms, "Sometimes there's an idea that the best or highest use possible for a piece of land is an industrial use. We wanted to push back on that notion, and say there are other uses of this land, and the community wants those uses established and built upon."
Alongside the vision for a less industrialized waterway, the community is focused on other healthy outcomes highlighted in some of the fourteen interest points along the Blueway. "We're interested in learning as much as we can about the water that's surrounding us, and the soil, and the air," Ramsey shares. Part of the reasoning for the Blueway "is to highlight the area, so future research can further establish if there is peril over use of the waterfront, or danger in consumption of wildlife from water. It will help us begin that conversation in earnest. It's not an abstract thing. The community uses the waterfront and the water resources. They deserve to know, and they have a right to know, of dangers that lie in the water." These concerns are well founded in Africatown. Not only has the community faced massive industrialization, but industry have been notoriously bad actors there, to the point of litigation over chemical spills and cleanup.
Through all the trials and hard work, Ramsey shares, "I look forward to exploring more with people doing similar types of work, so we can learn best practices and get ideas." But it's easy to see that from community mappings and ceremonies celebrating the waterway, to the multitudes of partners engaged, and the two years of organizing, there's a lot to learn from the Africatown that has surfaced on the national radar this year. This work signals the future the Africatown community wishes to see, and they're building a Blueway for others to follow.