The Africatown Project

In the summer of 1928, Zora Neale Hurston conducted anthropological fieldwork near Mobile, Alabama at Africatown.  The field site had been a suggestion of her academic advisor, Franz Boas, who proposed that she collect West African folklore from Africatown's most famous resident, Cudjo Lewis.  Lewis, along with 109 other captive Africans, survived an Atlantic crossing aboard the Clotilda, the last documented slaver to make the Middle Passage.  While reflecting on his 68 years on American soil and five years of enslavement, Lewis provided accounts of great loss; he had buried his three sons and his wife and longed to return to his boyhood home in Ghana.  Lewis also described moments of great happiness such as when Confederates fled Mobile in April of 1865 and he recounted that …"After dey free us, you understand me, we so glad, we make de drum and beat it… [like we were on] African soil."  The United Nations used this account in March of 2009 to commemorate the victims of the trans-Atlantic slavery and to illustrate resonate moments of Africans claiming their freedom.  Despite early research interest by Hurston and recent attention by the United Nations, few attempts have been made to pose connections between Africatown and the African continent, describe the difficulties of forging a community within the post-Civil War American South, or compare Africatown with other 19th/20th century African Diaspora sites.  Through fieldwork in January 2010 and again in the summer of 2010, members of the Africatown Archaeological Project worked to address these questions and aid the local descendant community in preserving cultural resources.

Africatown Project
Dr. Neil Norman at Public Archaeology Day  Discussing Research Methods at Old Plateau Cemetery, January 2010

 

From the outset project members adopted the client-based model proposed by Dr. Michael Blakey where community members define goals for fieldwork and approve methods.  With virtual unanimity, stakeholders designated conservation, stabilization, and mapping at the Old Plateau Cemetery as the first priority.  Several of the founders of Africatown are buried at Old Plateau, which makes it a point of pilgrimage and also potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).  After a series of community meetings in the summer of 2009, the goals of the project were threefold: 1) document and map the marked and unmarked graves located within the cemetery 2) stabilize graves that are in immediate threat of destruction, or are a danger to the public and 3) develop an initial preservation assessment for the cemetery. 

Africatown Project
Mr. Gary Autery aiding with excavations on his Great -Grandfather's homesite in Lewis Quarter




In the winter and summer of 2010, project team members cleared brush and monitored professional landscapers, who removed 20 years of overgrowth from the northern fifth of the cemetery.  After clearing, ground penetrating radar and sub-surface probing were used to record unmarked graves.  Project members then mapped grave-sites, recorded headstone information, and photographed each grave.  In total, 1699 graves were documented using these techniques. 

Africatown Project Alix Martin and Shea Winsett mapping graves at Old Plateau Cemetery




Project members recorded four collapsed graves with visible human remains and three vandalized graves with exposed caskets.  After consultation with local city officials, a mason was engaged to repair and repoint exposed burials.  As part of the stabilization efforts, project members also developed a stabilization plan for the gravesite of Innie Keeby, a survivor of the Clotilda crossing.  At the time of its recovery, the gravestone was in immediate danger of eroding down a steep slope.  Project members designed a bulkhead to prevent further erosion.  It is hoped that these emergency conservation efforts will stabilize vulnerable graves for several decades.  In coming field seasons, we will monitor these efforts and attempt to provide more context to unnamed and unmarked graves.   At two archaeological field-days in January and July 2010, Africatown community members helped to identify unnamed and unmarked graves.  These efforts are ongoing through an interactive database on the Mobile African American Heritage Trail website, which aims to harness the power of crowdsourcing for archaeological problem solving.

Community stakeholders identified the second priority of fieldwork as archaeological survey and testing to evaluate the NRHP eligibility of early Africatown homesteads.  Initial research revealed that the Peter Lee Site would be an excellent candidate for the NRHP in that it represents one of the vanishing few cases where we have documented evidence of house sites linked across the Atlantic diasporic divide.  Gumpa, or Peter Lee as he was known in Mobile, was born into Dahomean royalty in the early 19th century.  He was descended from Dahomean kings Glele and Benhazin.  The royal house of Dahomey profited greatly from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Today, palace complexes associated with the aforementioned kings are found at Abomey in the Republic of Benin, West Africa and listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  However, Gumpa spent most of his life 90 km south of Abomey at the coastal trading center at Ouidah.  He lived at the Dahomean administrative complex at Ouidah, which can be found today near the Catholic Basilica and Temple of the Python.   On a daily basis, Gumpa managed the trade of captives and represented the Dahomean royal line in such exchanges.  In 1860, Gumpa fell out of favor with his family in Abomey.  As a punishment, Gumpa was traded into the Middle Passage aboard the slaver Clotida.  Today, a family house still stands in Ouidah that relates to the royal line associated with Gumpa.  Likewise, a chimney stands on the highest ground in Africatown that local oral history suggests relates to a house Gumpa built for himself and his newly-constituted family.

Africatown Project
Megan Victor and Jennifer Saunders excavating Shovel TestPits at the Peter Lee House


In Africatown, Gumpa served as a central political leader of the community.  This was the case despite his association with the king of Glele, who many Clotilda survivors remember as the one who had commissioned raiders to capture the Clotilda group.  The iconic chimney from Peter Lee's house serves as the only standing architectural feature associated with a Clotilda survivor and an element on the landscape that spurs recollections of Africatown's deeper past.  In terms of archaeology, the chimney served as the center point of a systematic shovel test pit survey that revealed late 19th and early 20th century artifacts.  Follow-up test unit excavation revealed numerous features including pit middens, sheet midden underneath the porch, and an articulated brick floor.

Project members used similar field methodology to investigate Lewis Quarter, a site remembered as the homestead of Charlie Lewis.  Lewis was one of the survivors of the Clotilda crossing and served as a community leader of Africatown.  According to family historian Mrs. Lorna Woods, Lewis Quarter grew rapidly in the late 19th century to accommodate approximately 20 families with marriage or kinship ties to the Lewis family. 

Similar to the Peter Lee House site, Lewis Quarter exhibits intact archaeological features associated with survivors of the Clotilda crossing.  In terms of connections to the African continent, excavators recovered a feature located below a hearth box that included railroad spikes, iron locks, numerous metal fasteners, glass bottles, and smoking pipes.  This artifact cluster appears to be a structured deposit similar to other artifact clusters recovered from 19th century African Diaspora sites.  The feature is provocative in that it may relate to a cosmological marker; however, much more research in the area will be required to confirm this isolated and preliminary finding.  Nonetheless, given the prominent role of Charlie Lewis in local and world history, this site is an excellent candidate for the NRHP.

Africatown Project
Public Archaeology Day and Alix Martin DemonstratingTotal Station Mapping at Old Plateau Cemetery, January 2010


Members of the Africatown Archaeological team will be in the field in the summer of 2010 continuing investigations at the Lewis Quarter and beginning excavations at the Cudjo Lewis House site.  The project has enjoyed funding from special grants from the Alabama State Historical Preservation Office, Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, and the President of the Mobile African American Heritage Trail Dora Finley.