Descendants of people who founded their own self-reliant community after being kidnapped from Benin and smuggled to Mobile, Alabama, in 1860, have sued International Paper for releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and local environment.
More than 50 years after the United States outlawed the international slave trade, a wealthy plantation owner named Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could smuggle a shipment of slaves from Africa into Mobile right under the noses of federal troops at Mobile Bay.
In 1860, Meaher purchased 110 people from the Kingdom of Dahomey and packed them onto the Clotilda. During the four-month journey to Alabama, the Clotilda collided with another ship, its crew mutinied, and a storm ripped a mast from the ship.
The survivors were offloaded in a swamp in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of downtown Mobile, and the Clotilda was burned to conceal the evidence of Meaher's crime. (A wreck found by an Alabama reporter near Meaher State Park may be the Clotilda.) Meaher was arrested but never convicted.
After the Civil War, many of the Clotilda survivors returned to the area and, after both Meaher and the federal government refused their request for passage back to Africa, founded their own town in 1866.
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.
World War II brought rapid industrialization. Paper, asphalt, and petrochemical plants, pipelines, and coal terminals now surround Africatown, where many descendants of the town's founders still reside. Residents say this heavy industry presents serious health and safety issues.
Fighting Industrial Pollution
About 1200 residents are suing International Paper, which built a paper plant on land owned by A. Meaher Jr. in 1928. The suit alleges the plant 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.
"The debris that would fall from the air would be so thick you couldn’t see three feet in front of you,” resident Patricia Dock told the Guardian. 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."
The suit also claims that International Paper failed to follow federal regulations requiring it to clean up the site before the plant was bulldozed in 2000, leaving behind chemicals that have continued to spread into the surrounding area. The company tried to hide these violations from the public and government officials, the suit alleges.
Memphis-based International Paper, with reported sales of $21 billion in 2016, has denied all allegations in the suit.
The Legacy of Racial Injustice
One legacy of America's history of racial inequality is that, from Alabama to California, polluting facilities are more likely to be built – and less likely to be regulated – in low-income communities and communities of color.
Activists successfully defeated an oil storage tank farm proposal in 2015, but last year, Mobile adopted a future land use plan that leaves Africatown's small residential area unprotected from the continued threat of further industrialization.
While the Meaher family remains prominent in Mobile, industrialization, pollution, and high cancer rates threaten to erase Africatown and its unique history.
Lorna Gail Woods, 69, a fifth-generation Africatown resident and descendant of a Clotilda survivor has carefully collected historical artifacts and records on Africatown and is passionate about preserving the community's history. "I'm here as living hope for those that have gone on, that their life was not in vain," she said.