‘Let’s all be patient’: Africatown projects slowed, but still progressing


Mobile officials are stressing patience for the lofty expectations of the Africatown community’s future as a tourism destination following the discovery of the Clotilda slave ship more than three years ago.

A combination of supply chain issues and a contractual snafu has led to two of the community’s main projects – the Africatown Heritage House and the Welcome Center – to progress slower than expected.

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“Let’s all be patient and take the time to get this right and do the things it takes to make it the best possible undertaking not only for descendants of the Clotilda but also the citizens and members of the community,” said Mobile City Councilman William Carroll , who represents the community.

At issue are two developments viewed as key projects in kickstarting a cultural heritage tourism opportunity within the community:

*The $1.3 million Heritage House, which was supposed to be open by the summer, is on target for a late fall opening. No timetable for the House’s opening to the public has been provided to county officials, who recently entered into an agreement allowing the Historic Museum of Mobile access into the building even though it’s not finished.

*Bids are being reassessed on the design of an approximately $3.6 million Welcome Center that will be constructed off Bay Bridge Road across from the Old Plateau Cemetery. According to a city spokesman, they were unable to finalize a contract with a Birmingham design firm and, as a result, a new search is under way for a new architectural design firm on the project.

Heritage House

The Heritage House is expected to be the first of the museums that will highlight Africatown’s unique heritage as a community that was developed by the 110 survivors of the Clotilda slave ship. The Clotilda was the last transatlantic slave ship to sail from Africa into the United States when it arrived at Mobile Bay in 1860 – more than 50 years after Congress enacted a law against the importation of more slaves into the country.

Half of the Heritage House will be dedicated to exhibit space that will honor Africatown’s legacy as a community inhabited by the African slaves who survived the voyage and who, after the Civil War in 1865, inhabited the community.

The structure is approximately 5,000 square feet and is under construction adjacent to the Robert L. Hope Community Center in the heart of the Africatown community.

Hughes Plumbing & Utility Contractors Inc. of Mobile is in charge of the construction, which has experienced delays since prefabricated structures that make up the Heritage House arrived to Mobile last November.

Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, who has overseen the project including its funding, said she is hopeful the Heritage House is opened by Christmas.

“We don’t know,” Ludgood said when asked about an exact date in which Hughes will officially turn the building over to the county, allowing the History Museum of Mobile to install its displays.

“Every time I ask, our team is told ‘the fall,’” said Ludgood. “We know that once the contactor turns the building over to us, the museum needs 12 weeks to install (exhibits).”

Meg Fowler, director of the history museum, said the portion of the building that is dedicated for the exhibit is completed, and that her team plans to get inside soon.

“The History Museum of Mobile is excited to begin the work building out Clotilda: The Exhibition in the Heritage House,” Fowler said. “Staff has been busy behind the scenes for many months and we’re grateful to be able to begin work onsite.”

Welcome Center

The Welcome Center’s timetable is still set for a completion by 2024, but the project’s design work is back to square one.

City spokesman Jason Johnson said that the city is accepting proposals from interested firms in the design work until 3 pm on September 7.

“Our hope is to be under contract and to begin planning and design for this project in November,” Johnson said.

The Welcome Center is being financed by a $3.58 million appropriation in 2018 from the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council. The money comes from channels established by the RESTORE Act, which governs the allocation of fines and penalties from the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

Redevelopment Corporation

A picture of the former Scott Credit Union building in the Africatown community of Mobile, Ala., on Monday, May 23, 2022. The building is set to be demolished and will be eventually replaced by a new structure to house a multi-purpose building to cater to the historic community. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

The county is also moving forward on another project, which has perhaps created the most controversy in recent years.

Bids will be accepted until September 21 for the demolition and reconstruction of a facility to house the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation on Paper Mill Road, where the current Scott Credit Union once operated.

The corporation, formed through state legislation in 2021, has a mission of improving housing and developing commerce within the historic community that is located a few miles north of downtown Mobile.

The former credit union was sold to the city of Mobile for $50,000 by the descendants of Timothy Meaher, who was the wealthy steamship owner and slave trader who owned the Clotilda and orchestrated its illegal voyage from Benin, Africa, to Mobile.

The sale was viewed as having a “lasting positive impact” on Africatown. But renovation costs would have been around $800,000, and county officials determined earlier this year that it made more sense to tear it down and build anew.

Ludgood said the costs of that project is around $1 million. She said the demolition of the existing building is “part of the entire process.”

Bigger projects

Africatown Josephin Allen site

Tall grass and weeds is all that is left behind at the former Josephine Allen public housing complex in the Africatown community on Monday, August 15, 2022. In the background is the RSA Tower in downtown Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

The evolving projects within Africatown come at a time when attention on the community is fast-approaching with the October 21 release of the Netflix documentary, “Descendant.” The film is about Africatown and was produced by Mobile native Margaret Brown.

The film premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and has the backing of the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the film’s premiere on August 5 at Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.

Another screening is scheduled for 6:30 pm on August 28 during the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham.

There is no indication that a special screening will take place in Mobile.

Ben Raines, the former AL.com writer and author who discovered a piece of the Clotilda in 2019, said he believes the city should be planning ahead for a larger tourism attraction that would include a world-class museum. He believes the city has the perfect property for it on approximately 42 acres of vacant land where the Josephine Allen public housing complex once stood before it was torn down in 2021.

Raines said he has discussed the possibilities of a museum and recreating historic Africatown’s village on the site as part of a tourism anchor for the community.

Josephine Allen location

The former site of the Josephine Allen public housing complex in the Africatown community of Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

“This is the site that was taken (from the community) in 1960 to build the housing project,” Raines said. “It would be a way to recreate the business district and commercial district that was taken (from the community) in 1992, when Bay Bridge Road was built.”

The property is owned by the Mobile Housing Authority, which does not have any plans for the property.

Michael Pierce, the authority’s CEO, said his agency has not been “consulted” nor is involved with any plans or renderings.

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