The boat, the bell, and the bicycles: One of America’s Most Important Little Known Landmarks

By: William S. Lightfoot, Ph. D. (Dean of the School of Business at Southern New Hampshire University)

In early January 2019, 3 of my colleagues (Professors Pat Spirou, Eklou Amendah, and Leila Samii) and I had the great opportunity to visit a little known, but historically important community in Mobile, Alabama. While the official name is Plateau, historically it is known as Africatown. It’s name points to a past established during the run up to the Civil War, when a local family hired a ship (The Clotida) to bring slaves from Benin to Mobile. Bringing slaves over from Africa had been outlawed in the United States by the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. This didn’t stop the Meaher family from doing so.

As the slaves sought to survive in the belly of the two masted schooner, it made its way across the Atlantic in what is known as the ‘middle passage’. They would often hear a bell ring rapidly as a warning of a storm, or large wave that would rock the ship violently. Approximately 110 slaves survived the journey and were distributed as chattel to the investors in the venture, with the Meaher’s retaining 30 to work in their own plantations.

By the end of the war, the slaves were freed, with many returning to the place they first landed. There they established Africatown, adopting rules based on African Tribal law, while also retaining the language, customs and many cultural elements that were unique in their direct and immediate ties to their communities in Africa.

Flash forward, 15 years to the founding of the Mobile Country Training School (MCTS) in 1880 a black high school started in part by the former slaves of Africatown. It’s legacy is of an institution that has many successful athletes, educators, doctors, service personnel, and other professionals in many industries, and many places throughout the U.S. and beyond. A replica of the bell from the Clotilda sits in a prominent perch ready to ring rapidly anytime people are to be alerted that something important is about to happen.