The discovery was aided by input from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society and the Slave Wrecks Project, a multinational group researching the slave trade, and comes at a moment when civil rights museums have opened across the South. African-American history is also finding powerful new expression in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington in 2016.
But the news is likely to resonate most forcefully in Africatown, a working-class community of about 2,000 people north of downtown Mobile. It was founded by people who had been transported to Alabama in the Clotilda’s hull, and it was a place where African languages were spoken for decades.
“It lends credibility to the community and to who we are as not just West Africans, but we are North Africans and West Africans and part of a human story, not a human tragedy.”
In autumn of 2013, a senior executive from a powerful coal company and a lawyer from one of the state’s most influential firms hashed out a strategy for avoiding a serious — and expensive — problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in north Birmingham, where residents, about 95 percent of them African Americans, live in the shadow of massive waste berms, industrial chimneys, and the fortresses of steel, coking and cement manufacturing.
West Jefferson, Alabama, a somnolent town of around 420 people north-west of Birmingham, was an unlikely venue to seize the national imagination. Now, it has the misfortune to be forever associated with the “poop train”.
Residents in and near Birmingham have been in uproar over sewage that is transported by train and truck from New York and New Jersey to be dumped in the southern state.
The treated sewage – euphemistically known in the industry as “biosolids” – has plagued residents with a terrible stench, flies and concerns that spilled sludge has leaked into waterways.
Womack, a retired army major who grew up in the area and is now the leader of a local environmental justice group, has parked on a patch of dirt under a stories-high interstate bridge, wedged between a paper mill, oil storage tanks and an industrial railroad.
Between the tangle of heavy industry, it’s about as close as you can still get to the area where the Clotilda and the 110 kidnapped west Africans aboard are said to have first touched ground – and where the remains of what might in fact be the ship were recently discovered, thanks to unusual weather conditions.
The racial element of America’s poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the “Black Belt,” the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.
The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.
A United Nations official investigating poverty in the United States was shocked at the level of environmental degradation in some areas of rural Alabama, saying he had never seen anything like it in the developed world.
“I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this,” Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told Connor Sheets of AL.com earlier this week as they toured a community in Butler County where “raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits.”
A United Nations official who tours the globe investigating extreme poverty said Thursday that areas of Alabama’s Black Belt are suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country.
Children playing feet away from open pools of raw sewage; drinking water pumped beside cracked pipes of untreated waste; human faeces flushed back into kitchen sinks and bathtubs whenever the rains come; people testing positive for hookworm, an intestinal parasite that thrives on extreme poverty.
These are the findings of a new study into endemic tropical diseases, not in places usually associated with them in the developing world of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but in a corner of the richest nation on earth: Alabama.