America’s Cancerous Legacy for the Descendants of the Kidnapped Africans Who Arrived on the Last Slave Ship
For a moment, it seemed like the discovery of the ship’s wreckage and a lawsuit for environmental damages might bring some overdue recognition and justice. Then the moment passed.
In Africatown, Alabama, everyone remembers the daily blizzard of filth and decay from the International Paper mill’s stacks.
“Sometimes the ash was so thick you couldn't see five feet in front of you, like being in a snowstorm or dense fog,” W. Mae Jones said. Now in her eighties, she’s lived there for a half-century.
When the cloud billowed, youngsters darted home. Their mothers needed extra hands.
“If you didn’t bring the clothes in off the line, you would get little brown and grey spots and have to wash everything again,” Ruth Ballard said. The 85-year-old former nurse and lifelong resident recalled that “you would have to re-wash them, wash your car out. The odor was terrible.”
Across from Ballard’s modest brick home, dry sugarcane stalks rustle in the winter wind, their long shadows rippling across a five-acre community garden mostly dormant under the dim sun and overhead power lines.
“They have greens, turnips, collards, mustards, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, butterbeans,” Ballard said.
For 70 years, falling ash was an unavoidable part of life in the majority-Black community nestled among the wooded bayous and rivers just three miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. The problem grew in the 1960s when Scott Paper expanded into one of the world’s largest mills next to IP, local shorthand for International Paper.
Ballard said both mills offered free car washes to Africatown residents, “anytime, day or night.” Vehicles still corroded.
“It not only ate the paint but whatever the car was made out of, it ate that, too. Whatever the chemicals falling, it was that potent,” Ballard said.
Limited access to health care heightened the clouds’ more perilous costs.
“I have a sister and two brothers who died as a result of cancer,” Ballard said. “Then another brother and myself are twice survivors of cancer.”
The youngest of her brothers was 65. Ruth Ballard has been clear for 14 years now.
“My husband died of cancer three years ago,” Jones said.
When Rev. Chris L. Williams, Sr., arrived at Africatown’s Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church in 2006, he was stunned.
“I think we had about 20 funerals right in a row that year” from a flock of about 200, the state trooper-turned-pastor recalled. “That's way out of normal.”
After talking to his congregation, Williams sent a questionnaire into the community. Cancer was widespread. Williams looked at the heavy industry encircling Africatown: paper mills, petroleum tanker farms, power, cement, asphalt, and chemical plants. He organized community meetings and called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They told me it’s not a cluster and I told them you got all these people dying from cancer,” Williams said. ‘They said it had to be this or that… They know what they’re talking about, I guess.”
Williams contacted lawyers anyway. Prospective counsels’ initial enthusiasm faded.
“They would say, ‘We know there’s something there,’ and take soil samples, then go and talk to whomever and come back and say ‘nothing’s there.’ Then they wouldn’t answer the phone anymore,” Williams said.
North Alabama firm Stewart and Stewart finally took the case. When filed in 2017, the initial action listed 248 plaintiffs.
As legal motions were volleyed, the story’s scope exploded thanks to an unprecedented historic discovery and a merciless, unpunished crime that began a centuries-long saga.
Africatown was a punctuation mark on centuries of terror.
When Maine native Timothy Meaher entered Mobile in 1835, it was a gateway to the American frontier. He and his brothers made fortunes in river traffic, lumber and land.
Meaher wagered he could defy the 50-year-old federal law against importing African slaves. In July 1860, his schooner Clotilda, with a belly full of kidnapped African souls, slipped past the darkened city docks and toward vast tracts of Meaher-owned Mobile-Tensaw Delta land. In the canebrake and Spanish moss, the perpetrators offloaded 110 frightened, starving, ill captives, then steered the Clotilda upriver and set her ablaze.
News of the crime quickly blazed across the region, with stories appearing in outlets as far away as Brooklyn. Federal agents arrested Meaher but he insisted he was on another of his ships and offered eyewitnesses. He was also friends with federal prosecutors and the judge. Charges were dropped.
After his release on bond, Meaher moved the Africans between properties to elude detection by investigators. Eventually, they were sold or divided up among the Meahers. Of them, 16 men and 16 women went with Tim Meaher. His brothers took another 28 people.
On Jan. 10, 1861, the case against two Meaher accomplices was eventually dismissed while the case against the Clotilda’s captain was continued. Alabama seceded from the Union the next day.
When they were finally emancipated after the Civil War, the kidnapped Africans asked Meaher to return them to Africa. He refused. Gradually, they bought small parcels from Meaher and built their own community in what was called Plateau. Raised self-determined and free, the Africans lacked the deepest psychological shackles of many of the American-born Blacks around them.
“We are one of the few groups in America that know where we came from,” Theodore Arthur said. A noted saxophonist, Arthur identified himself as president of the original Africatown Direct Descendants of the Clotilda and a fourth-generation descendant of Clotilda captive Pollee Allen.
Arthur said he conferred with Sylviane Diouf for her award-winning and exhaustive 2007 book Dreams of Africa in Alabama. She called Africatown “the first [town] continuously controlled by Blacks, the only one run by Africans.”
Those Africans planted the seeds of memory in new soil and grew something familiar. Their independence–they farmed, hunted, fished, established their own business district, school and governing structure– rankled many. In 1906 and 1907, lynchings occurred on Plateau/Africatown’s western edge. Those murders, said historian David Alsobrook, a former director of both the Clinton Presidential Library and the History Museum of Mobile, felt like a message to Africatown’s population to “know their place.”
Weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, the IP mill opened on land leased from the Meaher family, between Africatown and the waterfront. Mobile County Probate deeds show IP finally purchased the land several decades later.
Meantime, city sewer, water and garbage pick-up were denied Africatown until the mid-‘60s, according to a 1967 Southern Courier report. Residents complained that whites would sneak in to dump trash. When the city code required the Meahers to improve numerous shotgun shacks rented to Africatown residents, they demolished the ramshackle homes instead.
“People have lived happy and healthy for years without running water and sewers,” Tim Meaher’s grandson, Augustine, Jr., told a Southern Courier reporter. “He don’t need garbage service… He don’t need a bathtub – he’ll probably store food in it. Wouldn’t know how to use it.”
Almost simultaneously, Mobile rezoned the area for heavy industry. The Southern Courier reported Scott Paper construction went up where the shacks once stood.
To date, the Meahers still hold upwards of 260 acres in and around Africatown. Toxic industries lease much of that land.
In the late 1980s, a new bridge was needed for the increasing flow of tractor trailers and tanker trucks barreling through Africatown. When its road was expanded to four lanes, it wiped out Africatown’s central business district. That retail was never replaced.
In 2013, public attention turned to a Plains All-American tar sands pipeline carrying the caustic slurry under Africatown’s Mobile County Training School playground. Originally running into storage tanks near the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge over the Mobile River, a scheduled flow reversal necessitated removal of the old pipe as a safety measure.
“That was probably the smart thing for Plains to do,” President of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition Ramsey Sprague said. MEJAC was founded in 2013 by frustrated Africatown residents.
“The school system knew about [the pipeline] all along,” activist and retired United States Marine Corps Major Joe Womack said. “So did a couple of people in the community but they never had the guts to stand up and tell anybody about it.”
The public fracas resulted in a $75,000 donation from Plains All-American. It went toward a new baseball diamond and roof for the school.
Womack is wary of the Meaher family’s gradual acquisition of neighborhood property, lots he claims appear derelict. He suspects they want it rezoned from residential to business.
“If my Mama’s house looked like that, we’d get fined by the city,” Womack said.
Womack cited the area’s population apex as over 10,000 in the late 1960s—former pro baseball player and Africatown native Cleon Jones guessed 4,000—but said it has winnowed to roughly 1,700. The presence of four churches within its one-square-mile confines testify to once greater numbers.
City-data.com gave its median income as $25,000, some $14,000 less than Mobile’s overall median. Some Africatown homes appear sound. Several others are worn, even dilapidated, in testimony to the withering forces of Southern life.
In 1989, IP’s Mobile mill released more than 200,000 pounds of carcinogenic chloroform, normally associated with paper and pulp mills, into the air. Three years later, Scott Paper released 630,000 pounds of chloroform, according to the Birmingham News.
Kimberly-Clark absorbed Scott Paper in 1995. Mobile operations continued.
In 1999, Environmental Protection Agency scientists said a dozen dangerous pollutants were found in the air near Africatown, with chloroform 100 times higher than safe levels. Among the volatile organic compounds were chloromethane, benzene and ethylbenzene, hexane, naphthalene and toluene.
The federal government began regulating highly toxic dioxins with the 1990 Clean Air Act. In 2000, IP announced the closing of their Mobile mill.
“Ten years is about the time you would expect the largest paper company in the world to explore litigating, getting around those types of regulations and in the end deciding they'd rather close shop than conform,” Sprague said.
“IP bulldozed everything, the whole plant, left everything in the ground,” Womack said. Most of the massive tract is vacant now, covered in tall grasses and scrubby trees. Cracked concrete stumps jut from the former foundation. A pipe company occupies the easternmost portion.
Womack and others claim proper remediation of dioxins and furans was avoided. Sprague went to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s (ADEM) offices in Montgomery, the state capital, to find the exit plan IP is required to file.
“I met with [ADEM Director] Lance LeFleur and asked about IP’s plan. He said, ‘It’s here’ and looked but couldn’t find it,” Sprague said. “He called his solid waste guy in to look also and they couldn’t find it in any of their electronic or physical files.”
LeFleur said he couldn’t recall a one-on-one meeting with Sprague though records indicated Sprague attended a pair of group meetings. ADEM’s online e-file system showed no specific remediation plans for the IP site.
“There are only certain circumstances where hazardous waste was either in the ground water or in the soil where a formal remediation plan is required,” LeFleur said. That determination is made by regular ADEM inspection.
Previous EPA citations didn’t surprise LeFleur. He pointed to the difference in levels of pollutants.
“You know I live in an older home and they used to burn coal for heating and put ashes out in the backyard so there’s coal ash in my backyard, but it doesn’t rise to the level of hazardous waste,” LeFleur said.
Mobile’s Baheth Research and Development Laboratories began sample collection around Africatown during Phase I, third-party evaluations, including topographical and historical studies for PCB generators and effects on water, soil and wildlife.
“That’s what made a case for $1.8 billion,” Baheth’s Raoul Richardson said.
IP’s revenue was $21.743 billion in 2017 and $22.4 billion in 2019. Early that year, a local reporter’s discovery of the Clotilda wreckage upriver from Africatown was announced. Covered in silt and muddy water for 160 years, it arose and rejuvenated the 110 captives’ tale.
The emergence of “the last slave ship” rang globally. National Geographic visited, as did network news reporters and Benin Ambassador Hector Posset.
Around the same time, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" was finally published, 90 years after she had finished it. The work is based on her 1927 visits with Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving Africatown founder.
Museum ideas materialized. Dreams of historic renewal bloomed. Womack and others pushed for a “blueway,” a recreational trail utilizing area waterways.
Meanwhile, additional plaintiffs in the IP lawsuit swelled past 1,000. Local asphalt maker H.O. Weaver and Sons were added as defendants and the case was remanded from federal court to Mobile circuit court in May 2017.
Richardson said Baheth Labs sent their report to Stewart and Stewart and a summary to MEJAC. Then he heard the law firm had contracted another lab for an additional report.
As COVID-19 spread, plaintiffs received news of a tentative settlement. A letter from Stewart and Stewart dated May 29, 2020 told one plaintiff: “When we began working on this case, we believed that we wound [sic] find significant amounts of pollution in the community. However, this did not prove to be the case. First, the soil testing we performed showed that the dioxin and furan pollution was merely at background levels, meaning the amounts were no different on the Africatown property than from anywhere else.”
The letter encouraged the plaintiff to agree to the “satisfactory settlement.” Though they varied, the highest figure mentioned among plaintiffs was $8,000. Rev. Williams said he knew of others who received as little as $200.
The settlement terms required 95 percent of plaintiffs to agree and sign releases prohibiting future action. Without that minimal percentage, the letter said no one would receive settlement funds.
There were no specifics on attorney fees in the letter. According to plaintiffs, the firm initially said their fees would be up to 40 percent of the final settlement.
Amidst the pandemic’s economic downturn, 1,090 plaintiffs signed off. A joint dismissal of complaint was filed Nov. 2, 2020.
“As we have stated since this case was filed, we categorically deny the allegations made by the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, we determined it to be in IP’s best interest to resolve their claims. The terms of this resolution are confidential and may not be disclosed by the parties,” Tom Ryan of IP said in a Jan. 11, 2021 statement.
“We found tremendous amounts of contaminants that we know are known carcinogens that would definitely adversely impact their health and safety,” Richardson said.
Baheth Labs’ paperwork mentioned “persistent organic pollution,” or POP, levels of 3,000 micrograms per kilogram in soil and water samples. That included eight dioxins, furans and PCBs in its congener group.
“The EPA and World Health Organization have determined that concentrations greater than 0.00003 are known carcinogens,” the report read.
Lab founder M. Allam Baaheth said their work was verified by a second lab.
In a 2016 report, The World Health Organization described dioxins as tied to elevated cancer rates. Its decay rate was defined as long-lasting, estimated between seven to 11 years. Chlorine bleaching of paper pulp was listed as a major source.
Once in the air, the toxins eventually permeate water, soil and more. Although lipophilic and drawn to fatty tissue, those poisons could affect a community garden, too.
“If you eat the vegetables, if the last time you ate it was in 2000 and 2005, that stuff would still be in your body. In fish from the waterways, there would be more, in chickens more, in pork even more,” Richardson said.
POP effects are cumulative. Their long-term concentration in humans is found through blood and human milk samples, not soil.
“We never got to do those tests,” Richardson said.
Baaheth was more plain-spoken. “If you’re eating the fish out of Hog Bayou up there, you’re going to die,” he said.
Despite numerous inquiries, plaintiff attorneys Stewart & Stewart declined comment on this story.
By 2012, court records cited Meaher family real estate company assets at $35 million, including 22,000 acres of land, timber plus rental income and cash. Tax records show their corporation paid $20 million in property taxes.
A state park on Mobile Bay carries their family name.
The family, which declined comment for this story, has traditionally remained quiet about the Clotilda saga. In 2018, Augustine Meaher, III told a West Coast reporter his great grandfather Tim wasn’t responsible. He blamed Clotilda Capt. William Foster.
In literature on the Mobile River’s “chemical corridor” of 25 manufacturers, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce ballyhooed ADEM’s “fast-track permitting” and ability to work with businesses.
In early 2020, details for the Africatown Heritage House were unveiled. The museum—planned adjacent to the schoolyard with a pipeline, less than a quarter mile from the old IP location—will usher visitors through historic Mobile, West Africa, the Middle Passage and feature artifacts from the Clotilda. Boat and land tours are sought as well.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and other political leaders think Africatown can generate tourist dollars, like Montgomery’s National Lynching Memorial. Stimpson has his own generational imprint there. His family’s lumberyard and wood treatment facility sprawls across 30 acres of what was once Africatown’s Lewis Quarters neighborhood. They sold the entire outfit in 2013 for more than $80 million.
Cargo trucks still roar past the historic Africatown cemetery, just feet away from its founders’ weathered headstones. While newer markers face the fading sun, the oldest face east, toward the new day’s hope, toward Africa.