A permanent Africatown Welcome Center is one step closer to reality after a unanimous vote by the Mobile City Council June 9.
The council approved spending $500,000 in federal funding from the BP oil spill to begin the planning process for a building dedicated to the history of the Mobile community established by the formerly enslaved.
The money is just a portion of the $3.4 million expected for the project, Mobile’s Director of Community Affairs Anitra Belle-Henderson said.
“This is the first set of funds we’re getting,” she said. “We will be able to look at the land, do a survey and start the design process.”
The building will be off Bay Bridge Road across from the Africatown Cemetery, Belle-Henderson said. It is the site of a previous Africatown welcome center, which was damaged by storms and not replaced.
Africatown resident Harry Austin said he was excited about the project.
“It’s something the whole community is looking forward to,” he said. “It’ll help shed some light on the history.”
When it comes to the future welcome center, Austin foresees a building full of related artifacts celebrating the community and its history. He wants to see students in the future visit it on field trips, like they do other museums.
“I’m pleased with it,” he said. “I appreciate Councilman [Levon] Manzie and the city.”
The future site could pair well with an exhibit featuring the Clotilda, which was the last ship to bring enslaved people to the U.S. The ship’s remains were discovered last year in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. In March, city, county and state officials announced plans to bring an exhibit about the ship to the Africatown area. The exhibit will include the histories of the final journey of the slave ship, the settlement and history of Africatown and the discovery of the sunken schooner, all through a combination of interpretive text panels, documents and artifacts, according to a statement from the Alabama Historical Commission.
The exhibit will be housed in a forthcoming facility, the Africatown Heritage House, which will be adjacent to the Robert Hope Community Center. Construction will begin immediately. Work on the facility is expected to be completed by late Summer 2020, with the exhibit tentatively opening in October 2020.
The exhibit will serve as a platform to continue dialogue and facilitate much-needed understanding and education about the impact of slavery and the long-lasting effects that have shaped Alabama and the country. Artifacts from the ship, in tandem with first-hand accounts of Clotilda survivors, will not only serve as insight into the Middle Passage, but also as tools that could shape how we all understand and teach the effects of the abhorrent institution that was slavery and the aftermath of emancipation.
The size of the welcome center structure and the way the site around it will look is still unknown until the drawings are finished, Belle-Henderson said. She believes this funding will help the city spark more conversations not only about what the site will look like or what it will contain, but also about future plans for the community as a whole.
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