From the ports that once brought slaves into the country to the streets where civil rights activists protested for equality, a new initiative is aimed at helping Mobile and its citizens highlight, preserve and even benefit from the area’s rich African American heritage.
Recently, the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau (MBCVB) announced a plan to partner with local communities to focus on cultural tourism, mirroring efforts in historic Southern cities like Savannah, Atlanta and Charleston. While there is already some organization along the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail, a new committee is in the process of drawing up plans to enhance cultural tourism by further developing those and other historic areas of Mobile, possibly adding more.
“We need to make sure we tell the complete story of Mobile. When you look at cultural tourism, that typically focuses on your African American and multicultural history,” said Al Hutchinson, MBCVB president. “That’s a story that needs to be told and if we’re going to complete the story, we need to focus on how we can improve that.”
Aside from the desire to tell a complete history, Hutchinson said cultural tourism stops have become “a business enterprise in a number of communities.” He mentioned cities like Savannah, but also ones closer to home like Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, which have created a network of stops along a “Civil Rights Trail” with Alabama’s Tourism Department.The Port City has a large number of historical places but with the local initiative still in its early stages, the committee has only identified three main focuses, Hutchinson said.
Announcing the long-range plans of the initiative on Oct. 12, Hutchinson said the Cultural Tourism Enhancement Committee aims to make improvements to the existing African American Heritage Trail, find a way to market Historic Africatown and develop a new civil rights memorial somewhere in the city of Mobile.
So far, a committee of stakeholders involved in business, education and previous local historic preservation has been established. Joe Womack represents Africatown on the committee.
According to Womack, the current African American Heritage Trail only “touches” the historically significant parts of Africatown. He said including the community in this and other recent restoration efforts is another step forward in a 25-year effort to properly revitalize and preserve Africatown.
“This community has had a lot of promises from politicians over the years, but this time it’s starting from the inside out, and we’re trying to get other people to come aboard,” Womack told Lagniappe. “With us being put on the National Register of Historic Places, that sort of verified us and gave us what we needed to say, ‘what we’re trying to do is for real and not just some pipe dream.’”
In March, the Mobile City Council approved $50,000 for a feasibility study to determine the best ways to redesign the neighborhood. The results and suggestions from that study are expected sometime soon, and Hutchinson said those will likely help “lead the charge” of making Africatown a cultural tourism destination.
Hutchinson said the preliminary ideas include increased signage directing people to the community and a much anticipated new welcome center. He also said there’s even been talks of a replica of the Clotilde.
Admittedly though, Hutchinson said those ideas were “futuristic” and would require funding that has not yet been secured. There’s also not yet a price tag attached to anything of proposed ideas.
It’s tough to measure what, if any, support the initiative might get from local governmental bodies. The MBCVB itself has limited funding, but at least some city and county officials have expressed interest in the idea of a developing a thriving tourism industry.
City Councilman Levon Manzie sponsored the agenda item to spark the feasibility study, and recently District 2 County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said the work was needed in a community that has had separate initiatives in the same vein, but never something this comprehensive.
“I wouldn’t call it fragmented, but we’ve been working on parallel tracks, and this gives us an opportunity to pull it all together through the MCVB, which I think is the appropriate home for this effort,” Ludgood said. “This is the first time I’ve seen the full presentation and mission statement, but it’s certainly something that needs to be expanded.”
Even though the MCVB is leading the task, Hutchinson said the direction will be determined by the people by way of the committee. Womack said they seem to be on the right, at least as far as Africatown is concerned.
He said there’s several people in the community that want something “they can be proud of.” He also stated there are descendants from the original Africatown community members in Mobile that have artifacts they like to give the public access to, if there was a proper and secure place to display them.
Womack said he’s confident in the Hutchinson and MBCVB, and thinks the local government’s appetite increased hotel nights will keep the stakeholders involved in the initiative.
“Our approach is to make sure that whatever we do as a community, the city gets something out of it,” Womack said. “That’s the key. If we can fill up some hotels on the weekend, the city is going to continue to support it.”
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