National Park Service – Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program: Inspiring Collaboration in Our Neighborhoods

Liz Smith-Incer National Park Service

By: Liz Smith-Incer, Field Office Director serving Mississippi, Alabama & Puerto Rico

The National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) extends and expands the benefits of the National Park Service to communities throughout the nation. Since 2016, RTCA has proudly served the community of Africatown and surrounding communities by assisting with the development of the Africatown Connections Blueway.

RTCA supports community-led natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the nation. The national network of conservation and recreation planning professionals partners with community groups, nonprofits, tribes, and state and local governments to design trails and parks, conserve and improve access to rivers, protect special places, and create recreation opportunities. This year, RTCA is helping more than 350 communities improve parks, establish trails, access rivers, and protect special places. Thanks to an application submitted to RTCA by the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association (MCTSAA), Africatown is one of those communities.

Liz Smith-Incer National Park Service Group Photo

MCTSAA envisions youth and elders reconnecting with the natural world that the shipmates of the Clotilda knew when they arrived on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1860. Alumni members believe in the healing power of water and the nourishing sustenance that a healthy waterway provides both for food and emotional “re-creation” of the spirit.

MCTSAA has been highly successful at convening communities in the Africatown area in a dialogue about preserving the area’s rich history and natural resources. With the collaborative assistance of RTCA, MCTSAA is now actively working with many other organizations to develop the Africatown Connections Blueway, a 10+ mile paddling trail highlighting historical and culture points of interest that include sites along Three Mile Creek, Mobile River, and Chickasaw Creek.

Over the past few years, RTCA has supported MCTSAA and its project partners, to connect young people to the outdoors by providing hands-on experiential education opportunities on the water and has led the development of the Africatown Connections Blueway Planning Team. RTCA has played an essential role in creating a forum for natural history and cultural exchange between Africatown elders, local youth of the communities of Africatown, Prichard, and Chickasaw and experienced conservation professionals. This exchange is designed to build an understanding and appreciation of coastal ecosystems, the Africatown culture and how these things are influenced by current land use in the area.

The Africatown Connections Blueway Planning Team, which includes community members as well as active participants representing academia and local government staff from four jurisdictions (City of Mobile, City of Prichard, City of Chickasaw and Mobile County), has accomplished key objectives and will continue to move forward with this exciting project.

Africatown Connections Blueway Mapping
The effort of inventory and surveying the points of interest along the Africatown Connections Blueway is a shared effort, and a sincere expression of appreciation goes to the youth of the GulfCorps Team, Public Lab and Tuskegee University.

The GulfCorps Team visited each proposed point of interest and completed inventory sheets which helped to identify the current status of each point of interest and will help to prioritize the order of development for the points of interest.

Partnering with Public Lab, Oberlin College, and Mobile Environmental Justice Action Committee, the Africatown Connections Blueway Planning Team hosted a mapping workshop where community members learned about low cost, open source accessible mapping techniques using balloons, kites, and digital cameras and then created maps of the test site from images captured using Mapknitter. This is an excellent resource to help neighbors get a “bird’s eye view” of what is happening along the Blueway. Workshop participants visited and photographed historic Hog Bayou, traditionally known to be full of deer, wild hogs, birds, turkeys, and fish, which fed the locals for years after slavery ended until the 1940s when both International Paper and Scott Paper Companies built their facilities along the shores of Hog Bayou.

Tuskegee University is creating a digital presence for the Africatown Connections Blueway on the world wide web. This will include a storyboard with photos and descriptions of each point of interest along the Blueway.

National Park Service Balloon Photo

Initial Concept Designs
RTCA initiated what will be a lifelong connection between Mississippi State University School of Landscape Architecture (MSU) and MCTSAA. Professors and students of MSU visited with members of the Africatown Community in March 2018 and provided conceptual designs for some of the proposed points of interest along the Africatown Connections Blueway. MSU provided digital copies, RTCA provided hard copies of the concept designs, and we hope to display the concept plans at the Robert L. Hope Community Center.

Africatown Connections Planning Retreat
RTCA facilitated a day-long planning retreat where folks from all walks of life including local, county and federal government staff, political leadership, local nonprofits, and community members came together to complete a SWOT Analysis for each point of interest for the Blueway. Participants also fortified their shared understanding of the collaborative effort between Cities of Mobile, Prichard, Chickasaw and Mobile County related to Africatown Connections Blueway.

Strong Partner Support
RTCA initiated and facilitated conversations with a marine archeological investigative team made up of the Submerged Resources Center of the National Park Service, Smithsonian and The Slave Wrecks project. In Fall 2017, this small team began to explore the possibility of researching the location of the Clotilda and began to consider including the resting place of the Clotilda as one of the points of interest along the Africatown Connections Blueway. Since then, the State of Alabama has renewed the research for the Clotilda, and the Planning Team has been supported by the Alabama Historical Commission and the Black Heritage Council.

Celebrating & Healing
In June 2018, the Africatown Connections Blueway Planning Team hosted the inaugural Africatown Connections Celebration, held under Africatown Bridge with music, sacred rituals and a shared meal. Representatives of each jurisdiction shared a proclamation of their goal to work together on the Blueway project. We celebrated our shared goal of the Africatown Connections Blueway connecting the historic neighborhoods of Africatown to City of Prichard’s Africatown USA State Park. We celebrated how the Blueway seeks to connect, not separate, seeks to join not divide. We continue to honor our united interest in protecting our waters and the special natural spaces that surround us.

Looking Ahead
Of primary importance to current residents of Africatown is to preserve and make available the history and historical significance of Africatown to communities across Alabama, the United States, and the entire world. The community members of Africatown would like to re-connect the youth of Africatown to their natural surroundings and to the past and current traditions, of which the waterways play an essential part. RTCA will continue to support the Africatown Connections Blueway Planning Team while it works to develop a sustainable organizational framework to support the Blueway Project.

On behalf of the National Park Service, I thank each of you for playing a role in preserving and protecting special places today and for future generations.