Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘Infrastructure apartheid’: Africatown’s fight against toxins, new toll bridge

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The historic Alabama town is already surrounded by polluting industries. An impact study says traffic avoiding a proposed toll bridge would only make the air more toxic.

Joe Womack can clearly see the future of Africatown: A cultural destination for Black people, a place for family reunions, vacations, and class trips. His favorite part to imagine is the walking tour along the main drag, Africatown Boulevard. It’ll tell the story of how in 1860 — more than 50 years after the slave trade was outlawed — a wealthy white Alabama man made a bet that he could bring a cargo of enslaved Africans into Mobile illegally. The Clotilda ship smuggled in 110 kidnapped Africans. After the Civil War ended, survivors returned to the area and founded Africatown. They maintained independence, governed by African traditions, and eventually bought the land from the people who enslaved them. 

Africatown, a nearly all-Black town surrounded by water on three sides and home to about 2,000 residents, is now part of Mobile. The descendants of many enslaved people who were trafficked via the Clotilda still live in the area. Since part of the town was designated as a historic district in 2012, and the Clotilda was rediscovered in 2019, Black locals like Womack, who is an Africatown native, have been working hard to make their dreams of a historic landmark a reality. 

But there is a major barrier to making that happen: In June, Mobile and Baldwin County officials announced a plan to revive a proposed bridge project to address the growing traffic in Mobile. The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project would allow for a new toll bridge to be built for trucks over 46 feet long so they would not use the I-10 Wallace Tunnel to cross the Mobile River — a large source of traffic congestion in the city.

The Alabama Trucking Association publicly opposed the toll when it was proposed earlier this year. Semi-tractor trailer trucks would have to pay between $10 to $15 to cross the proposed bridge, and that money would help recoup funds for the project. If truckers decide to go around the toll bridge, they’d be diverted right through Africatown.

“If they force more traffic, it could diminish our walking tour and that may turn into people not coming — word might get out this is not a safe place,” said Womack, who leads the nonprofit Africatown CHESS (Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe, Sustainable) and formerly worked in the trucking industry. 

The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) supports the project, but its own environmental impact statement from 2019 says that the project is “expected to result in disproportionately high and adverse impacts on an environmental justice community located on the non-tolled route due to traffic diverting from I-10 to avoid paying the toll.” These impacts include diesel exhaust pollution that can lead to chronic cardiac and pulmonary diseases, collisions with other vehicles or pedestrians, and increased heat from emissions.   

“[The people of Africatown] survived slavery, Jim Crow, and what they’re threatened with now is toxic pollution in terms of industrial encroachment in neighborhoods, as well as highway toll road traffic and pollution,” said Robert Bullard, an urban planning and environmental policy professor at Texas Southern University. He’s also known as the “father of environmental justice.” 

There are plans to mitigate the harms, said Tony Harris, government relations manager for ALDOT, including constructing bicycle and pedestrian facilities; installing landscaping, lighting, crosswalks, and signage; and working with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to install air quality monitors. An ADEM spokesperson said the agency has “no knowledge” of the bridge project and directed Southerly to ALDOT. 

Harris also said the agency plans to conduct a study to document existing and future hazardous cargo traffic flow. However, the 2019 environmental assessment warns these measures won’t offset the environmental risks. 

ALDOT will work with community members in Africatown to promote “compatibility” with their tourism plans; Harris said that as part of this effort, ALDOT is developing a steering committee comprising community leaders from Africatown “to define how environmental commitments will be accomplished.”

Womack, a member of that committee, said he has not yet been contacted about it.

For as long as he’s been alive, Womack remembers polluting industries forcing their way into Africatown. Major paper companies built mills in the early 20th century, expanding even as most locals lacked running water or indoor plumbing and drove on dirt roads. When Mobile incorporated Africatown into its city limits in the 1970s, the city rezoned much of it for business. 

Companies—petrochemical, asphalt, coal terminals—made their way in. “They did what they wanted to the community and people,” Womack said. 

At its height, Africatown had 12,000 residents.Africatown residents lost most of their access to the water and much of their land to industries and the number of neighborhoods dropped by half. (Descendants of Timothy Meaher, the white man who brought the Clotilda to Alabama, still own some land in the area.)

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is leading a consortium of HBCUs along the Gulf Coast and community groups like Africatown CHESS to raise awareness and build power in communities impacted by environmental injustices. Experts work with students, researchers, and community members to obtain data, attend meetings, and advocate for themselves. The local meetings are where “major decisions are being made about how you are able to live in your community,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy and the community engagement program manager at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. 

“It’s tremendous what happens when folks get education and support to act on priority issues for themselves,” she said. They’ve been pressuring Mobile officials to change zoning codes for Africatown so that industry isn’t as rampant. As Womack notes, 17 industrial businesses surround Africatown, including three of the five top polluting facilities in the county.

In 2012, Africatown leaders successfully stopped a proposed hazardous waste disposal facility being proposed on an old paper mill site, which is still contaminated. In 2017, residents sued International Paper, alleging it failed to properly clean up the site when it closed and released  hazardous chemicals into the air and environment. Now, trucks — often carrying hazardous cargo — travel through Africatown to cross the river. 

“Determining the effects of environmental issues is not immediate and takes years either because of research or politics, which is too late because everyone may then be detrimentally affected,” said Elica Moss, assistant professor and environmental health science coordinator at Alabama A&M University, an HBCU that works with Africatown community members through the consortium. “That’s too late because everyone is affected.” 

Now, the community groups in the consortium are trying to garner enough support to push back against the bridge and bayway project. Womack, Bullard, and other activists call the bridge project a “zombie” because it has resurfaced multiple times since the 1990s.

The original $2.1 billion project was declared dead in 2019 due to concerns over tolls for passenger vehicles. The new bridge is estimated to cost $44.5 million for preliminary engineering and $665 million in actual construction; the state has $125 million in federal funds to use by Sept. 30, 2022 or the money will be lost. 

In June, the Eastern Shore and Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO)—a board of elected and appointed officials who carry out the metropolitan transportation planning process—voted to add the project to their plans. Approving the plan at the local level will enable local and state officials to pursue critical federal funding. (Members of both MPOs did not respond to requests for comment. The Mobile MPO members forwarded the requests to ALDOT.)

The City of Mobile is not directly involved in the planning, though Mayor Sandy Stimpson is chair of the board of the Mobile MPO. City officials said via email it is an “important project the city supports” and plans to address concerns of Africatown community members. 

Harris, from ALDOT, said that the current transportation infrastructure in the Mobile area is already beyond its capacity. “Congestion spills over into downtown Mobile, as well as through Africatown,” he said, adding that the project will help to improve the flow of goods and the quality of life. 

“Doing nothing to address the region’s growing traffic congestion will prevent Africatown residents from realizing the full potential of the cultural tourism of the area,” Harris said. “The state, including ALDOT, is 100 percent supportive of tourism opportunities that abound with the discovery of the Clotilda.” 

But most residents and environmental justice advocates say the harms greatly outweigh the risks. A 2021 study showed that Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every type of source. According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average concentration of air pollution exposure for Black people is 7% higher than for a person who breathes the average air in the state. In Mobile County, it’s even more stark: Particulate matter—PM 2.5—exposure is 12% higher for Black residents and 7% lower for white ones. 

In Africatown, Bullard said, car ownership is low, meaning most residents won’t be contributing to the pollution. “When we talk about this toll road and bridge, it’s more than infrastructure — it’s infrastructure redlining and it’s a form of infrastructure apartheid,” Bullard said. “Roads, bridges, and highways do not go in a straight line — they detour and circle around affluent and white communities and run straight through Black and POC communities. That’s a form of systemic racism that has been embedded since the very beginning.” 

But the city of Mobile — and Alabama — will benefit from the growth of historic Africatown. Womack hopes it will bring in as much attention as money as the Memorial for Peace and Justice, a site dedicated to lynching victims in Montgomery. The site had 400,000 visitors in its first year. The state and federal government have pledged significant funding to revitalize Africatown, including $3.5 million in BP oil spill money to build a welcome center, which should be completed by 2023. 

“That work is being threatened by this plan that would turn the dream residents have for their community as a safe place with some buffer from existing industry,” Harden said, “and a place where they can focus on valuing and bringing attention to and respect for their history.” 

The Eastern Shore and Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organizations are holding a meeting at 2 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, where ALDOT will provide an update on the bridge and byway project.

Additional meetings will be scheduled, according to Harris, and he said there’s “no doubt” the public will have opportunities to comment as the project moves forward.  

If the bridge project is approved, it could pave the way for even more development and displacement. Then, Womack said, there’d be a marker that said “Africatown used to be here.” 

“This is a historic site just like Williamsburg or Jamestown — the only difference is that it is a community of Black folks,” he said. “We want it to sustain itself. [Mobile] said they’d take care of us, and they’ve done just the opposite — they’ve tried to wipe us out.”

The MPO meeting will be at 2 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center: 30945 Five Rivers Boulevard, Spanish Fort, Ala.

Lyndsey Gilpin is the executive editor of Southerly.