Our team spent Saturday, September 16 engaging in the Africatown Cemetery Project, a form of public archaeology led by archaeologist Dr. Alexandria Jones of Howard University and her team at Archaeology in the Community. We first gathered at the Hopewell Community Center, where members of the Africatown community and the Mobile County region more broadly registered to help with the cemetery documentation process. Dr. Jones gave a short presentation explaining how to use the ArcGIS survey app/website, which asked registrants to identify each grave’s number, measure its features, take note of inscriptions or features, and record its physical condition.
Registrants then jumped into their cars and traveled across the neighborhood to Plateau Cemetery, where Dr. Jones designated sections of the Old Plateau cemetery to small groups of 1-3 participants. Using a chalkboard, measuring tape, and mobile phone, we worked together to submit the requested information and photographs for as many graves as possible over the course of 2-3 hours. It was a wonderful sight seeing so many members of the surrounding region standing alongside the Africatown community out in the hot humidity to carefully document each grave. I believe that community engagement and collaboration can be such a powerful mechanism of change – and in places like Alabama that have historically silenced Black voices, cultural heritage preservation projects can especially provide important platforms for such change.
While Saturday was a bright spot, Sunday, September 17 was quite sobering of the reality that faces Africatown everyday. Our team traveled under the Africatown bridge – that was built to separate the historic Union Missionary Baptist church from Plateau Cemetery – and drove past petrochemical plants, industrial facilities, and train tracks to access the shore of the Mobile River. The underlying smell of chemicals was strong enough to give us migraine symptoms after only being there for 5 minutes. When I touched my palm to the water, I felt emotional thinking about all the chemicals that reside in the same river that contains the nearly untouched wreck of the Clotilda. The pain and beauty of the place was contrasted by the beautiful trees and herons against the slick that snaked away from the Paper Mill into the abandoned watering hole of Hog Bayou.
As the community continues to work toward racial repair and the reconciling of past harms, the cemetery mapping was a piece of that repair. The importance of listening to the Africatown community and understanding their desire to preserve their history and their sacred spaces is paramount to their healing process. Equally important to Africatown, is the story of their persistence and fight for justice throughout the centuries.