Mobile, Alabama's People of Color: A Tricentennial History, 1702-2002
© 2004, by Shawn A. Bivens. Trafford Publishing
While historians have offered interpretations about European and Spanish explorations to North America, very little has been written about Africans who accompanied those explorers. Even fewer historical interpretations have been written about journeys to the “New World” by native African explorers from the African continent.
Long before the French lay claim to Mobile, for instance, some Negroes accompanied the Spanish when they explored Mobile Bay. Additionally, during a close encounter at Mobile Bay in 1528, members of the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition exchanged one Negro for two Indian hostages. As another case in point, between 1305 and 1492, the King of Mali, Abu Baraki, II, and Mandingo merchant explorers made over fifty voyages across the Atlantic to Central and South American sites.
Between 1492 and 1565, Africans accompanied explorers on expeditions to the “New World.” Pedro Alonzo Nino, an African explorer for instance, navigated with the Columbus crew in 1492. Additionally, Nuflo de Olano and twenty-nine other Africans accompanied Balboa in the crossing of Panama. The free Christianized African, Juan Garrido, was among the early conquerors of the island of Boriquen (now Puerto Rico) and also participated in the colonization of Mexico, where he was the first person to plant wheat in this hemisphere. Africans also accompanied DeSoto in 1539 and Coronado in 1540.
The rich heritage of the “City by the Bay” began in January of 1702, “... and they called it Mobile….” Mobile is one of America’s oldest cities, and the oldest west of the Appalachian Mountains. The name “Mobile” was derived from “Movila,” what Native Americans, the original inhabitants, called the bay. Over the course of three hundred years, Mobile, also the oldest city in Alabama, raised flags from five different countries: France (1702-1763); England (1763-1780); Spain (1780-1813); United States of America (1813-1861); and (1861-1861); and the Confederate States of America (1861-1865).
A French Canadian soldier, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, selected Mobile Bay as the site for a French colony in southern Louisiana. Among the officers and crew led by Iberville included sailors from Europe, the African Caribbean, and North America. “Later, on January 13, 1702, Charles Levasseur, dit Ruessavel; Canadian naval officer, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville; Iberville; and their brother Joseph LeMoyne de Serigny, all native Canadians, established Fort Louis de la Louisiane on a bluff twenty-seven miles north of the Mobile River.”
Nicolas Bodin was another founder of Old Mobile. He later moved to the Fowl River area. Bodin, a thirty-one year old who had recently arrived from Mont Louis in France, traveled downstream to the southernmost corner of the bay near where the same riviere-aux-poules forked to form an island. Bodin married Francois Pailett. Another founder of Old Mobile was Francois Derbanne (Francois Guyon des Pres d’Erbanne) who married Jeanne de la Grande Terre, a slave. Under orders of King Louis XIV, the Native American settlement became the first capital of French Louisiana.
A prominent resident of the area was Italian explorer Henri deTonte. He had been a key assistant to the great French explorer LaSalle, losing an arm fighting for France.
The crews that included local natives and Haitians used small boats to ferry people and supplies from Massacre (Dauphin) Island to the new colony located near the Mobile River. They prepared to settle into the new area. The colony included a small square fort, named Fort Louis de la Mobile, streets, a kiln, and a blacksmith shop. They planted crops in the surrounding fields and later erected a chapel, [Alabama’s first Catholic church.]
Mobile’s rich three-hundred year heritage includes inhabitants who lay claim to “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Following the founding of Mobile by such a sparse number of original inhabitants, the explorers attempted to use Indians as a primary source to establish and to expand the population of the new colony. However, it was not long before the founders realized that they would need help from others if they planned to be successful in colonizing the North American settlement.
The colony expanded primarily through miscegenation among those who sailed with the expedition that included people of color, and local Native Americans. In 1706, for instance, Iberville had seized some Negroes from the British Caribbean Island of Nevis. He gave his brother, Antoine Chateaugue, also a founder of Mobile, at least six of the Negro slaves, and kept the others for himself. Iberville gave French names to a number of the young Negroes who were brought to the settlement.
In 1707, “Francois LeMaire baptized Bienville’s seven year-old Negro slave whom Bienville had earlier named Jean-Baptiste.” In January 1707, Chateaugue moved his male slave Francois Jacemin in with Marie, one of Bienville’s Negroes. In October, Marie gave birth to an infant male. He was baptized Antoine at a service performed by LaVente, and witnessed by Zacharie Drapeau and Gabrielle Savary. On June 30, 1707, LaVente baptized a three year-old Negro named Joseph who also belonged to Bienville. These young Negro children were previously inhabitants of the British Crown in Nevis.
These people of color lived with some of the French Canadian founders who remained in the area, along with early French colonial settlers who came over with the founders, and with local Native Americans. Additionally, the Mobile Archdiocese archival records should indicate how some of these young people, new inhabitants to the French colony of Mobile, grew up, and through miscegenation gave birth to their children, thus creating Mobile’s Mulatto people of color (persons of African descent born of mixed-race parentage), and Creole people of color (persons of African descent born on the Gulf Coast with either a French or Spanish last name.)
The fact that miscegenation occurred beginning around this period should determine generational lineage with further research. Additionally, the arrival of these young Negro people occurred during Mobile’s founding, more than fifteen years before the first shipment of African slaves were brought to the Mobile French colony in 1721.
Mobile’s early settlers faced several obstacles during the period of adjustment. Lack of food, disease, and flooding were three major concerns encountered by the early settlers at Fort Louis. The Spanish in Pensacola provided the colony with assistance when the French failed to send supplies to the new inhabitants. Additionally, disease resulted in sickness and death. However, a severe flood, and lack of protection along the coast compelled the founders to move the new colony. In 1711, the colony, strategically situated near the Mobile River, was moved “piece by piece” down river to the Gulf of Mexico at the edge of Mobile Bay, where they rebuilt the town. In 1717 they built a fortification named Fort Conde.
Between 1444 and 1882 an estimated fifteen to twenty million or more West Africans from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Bornu, and other regions were forcibly transported from their homelands to North America. France, Britain, and Spain led in this form of piracy, but slave trade also came from Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland. African slaves began to arrive in French Colonial Mobile in 1721. The Africane arrived from Guinea, West Africa in 1721 with 129 Africans, half the number captured for the journey; followed by the Maria that arrived later that year with 338 slaves. The Neride left Angola with 350 humans that same year. However, when the ship landed, only 238 slaves had survived the journey.
Miscegenation in Mobile originated during French occupation between 1702 and 1763. Cohabitation was prevalent among a number of French Canadian founders, French settlers, early inhabitants of African descent from Nevis and Haiti, local Native Americans, and later inhabitants who were brought to Mobile as part of the African slave trade. Moreover, according to the 1990 Population Census, more than 10.3 million Americans claimed a French ancestry and another 2.2 million claimed Canadian-French ancestry, all with considerable differences in experiences of settlement and migration.
The British gained control of the Mobile colony in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian Wars. Only 350 people lived in Mobile when British commander Major Robert Farmer arrived.
The English continued to import slaves. During this period of American Slavery, the British exerted it authority over the “peculiar institution.” Slave life became harsh and inhumane under the British flag. In January 1767, for instance, the British West Florida Assembly passed a statute that made manumission more costly, with more severe forms of punishment. In June of that year, the Assembly enacted a second slave act that was perhaps more severe because the act outlawed drumming and feasting, part of the African slave’s heritage and culture. “By 1769, Mulattos lived throughout the Gulf region, especially around the ports of Mobile and Pensacola.” By 1774, twenty-three free blacks and mulattos were found in Mobile.
“Runaway slaves were among the first voluntary migrants of African descent in the Americas, Mobile notwithstanding. These fugitive refugees who escaped plantations and other slavery systems wanted more freedom and opportunities to create their own communities. Rewards for capturing runaways were increased, and dismemberment was added to the list of possible punishments. Slaves were prohibited from meeting in numbers on Sundays and holidays, and from playing games of chance.”
Following the American Revolution, Spain declared war on England. A siege was laid against Fort Charlotte, and early that year Mobile fell into Spanish hands. When Spain declared war on Great Britain in 1779, the American Revolution came to Alabama.
England ceded most of the Alabama region to the United States and to Spain. In 1780, Bernardo de Galvez captured Mobile from the British. In 1783, with an exception of Florida, Great Britain ceded to the United States all lands east of the Mississippi at the end of the Revolution. The Mississippi territory, which included parts of present-day Alabama, was set up in 1789, but the land located at St. Stephens was still largely a wilderness.
In 1795, the Pinckney Treaty (formerly the Treaty of San Lorenzo) established the boundary between the United States and Spanish West Florida (which had seized Mobile from the British) at the 31st parallel. More specifically, the Treaty stated that all Alabama lands below the 31st parallel belonged to Spain, and the lands above the 31st parallel belonged to the United States. This included the Native Americans who also lived there.
One visitor to the area was Major Andrew Ellicott, a Philadelphia engineer, astronomer, and surveyor general of the new United States. He figured prominently in Mobile’s history, and in the history of Alabama. Another surveyor, President George Washington, commissioned the visitor from Pennsylvania to locate the 31st parallel. The parallel would establish the international boundary starting at the Mobile River and working towards the Atlantic. Sir William Dunbar performed the survey east of the Mississippi on behalf of Spain.
“Using the stars to help in the calculations, Ellicott and his crew began at the Mississippi River and worked east. His survey crew ran a compass line from the Pearl River near Natchez, reaching the Mobile River on April 10, 1799. He left a boundary marker where what he considered to be the location of the 31st parallel.”
“The marker is made of brown ferruginous sandstone monolith and is about two feet high and eight inches thick, and marked with inscriptions on both sides. On the north side of the stone is the inscription ‘U.S. Lat. 31, 1799.’ On the south side is ‘Dominio de S.M. Carlos IV, Lat. 31, 1799.’” “The parallel remained there for only fourteen years, however, until America obtained Mobile from the Spaniards in 1813. Ellicott’s Stone is still there in ‘scraggly’ woods, off Highway 43 near Bucks, Alabama.” A careless tree cutter felled a tree that accidentally landed atop the stone, causing it to crack. “Fort Stoddart, located on a bluff of the upper Mobile River near Mount Vernon, protected the new boundary. Even though it was a humble wooden structure, it could for a time accurately claim to be the southernmost part of the United States.”
Mobile’s people of color evolved through miscegenation and grew when inhabitants from Haiti and Nevis were brought to Mobile beginning in 1702, and cohabitated with French Canadian founders and settlers, and local Indians. “By 1769, when Spain gained control of Louisiana, mulattos composed better than half of the small free Negro population. Additionally, Negroes lived throughout the Gulf region, especially around the ports of Mobile and Pensacola.”
“In 1810 and 1819, Americans pushed Spain out of West Florida and Florida, smaller free Negro populations around Mobile and Pensacola were brought under the American flag. The free Negro population of the gulf region was almost entirely the product of extramarital unions between white men and African American women. Although the children of these mixed racial unions followed the status of their mother, a liberal manumission policy encouraged masters to free their racially mixed mistresses and their light-skinned children.” Miscegenation also explains why even today blue eyes and fair skin are prevalent among a number of Mobile’s African Americans, some whose skin color is “as white as Caucasians,” and as dark as ebony.
“In the deep South, less than two percent of the African American population was classified as free in 1860. Often referred to, as Creoles or mulattos, a significant portion of free minorities in the Deep South were wealthy, light skinned aristocrats. Some Creoles looked down on dark-skinned free African Americans, and many despised the negative stigma that was associated with being of African descent.”
The free elite in cities such as Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana prided themselves on their fine clothing and “respectable” air. Caucasians in the Deep South employed the few free people of African descent mainly as day laborers and domestic servants. Many more free African Americans worked as carpenters, masons, mechanics, and tailors.
Some free people of African descent in the Deep South were financially secure and able to own slaves. “By 1830, 13,000 African slaves were owned by nearly 4,000 free people, some of whom were once slaves themselves. Many purchased slaves in an effort to protect family members, but others sought to expand personal fortunes. By 1860, free people of color in the Deep South owned an estimated $9 million worth of property, more than most Southern Whites, and nine times as much as free Northern African Americans.”
Early White settlers created the Mobile Creole “class” and “caste” as a result of the Creole’s African heritage, and to distinguish the group from Caucasian inhabitants. However, this did not prevent Creoles from taking full advantage of the economic privileges afforded them during this period. It was not simply an issue of color, and White America was forced to take this into consideration.
One particular reason why White Americans had to look beyond color as they dealt with free people of color was because this group had gained wealth and power by the time the United States had taken control of the Floridas from Spain. “Nowhere else in the South did whites treat free Negro liberty with such respect as it did the free people of color of the Gulf ports, who were an exception within the South’s anomalous caste.”
In 1824, for instance, “…when Alabama lawmakers tried to force Mobile free Negroes out of the state by burdening them with a one hundred dollar head tax, the governor coolly vetoed the measure as an affront to the free Negro’s constitutional rights.”
“Throughout the antebellum years, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803 provided the free Creole African Americans of Mobile certain rights and privileges. Creoles were also called the ‘treaty population’ because the Adams-Onis Treaty that transferred West Florida to the United States guaranteed them the rights of citizens. They were accorded special privileges denied to Freedmen. In the 1830s, when Alabama barred free African Americans from attending school, for instance, the Alabama Legislature granted ‘free colored Creoles’ in Mobile the right to create their own separate school system.” Moreover, the Mobile Diocese created the Cathedral Creole School and the Creole schools located at St. Patrick’s Church and on Mon Luis Island for Mobile’s Catholic Creoles.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, public school children of African descent, as they walked home from their schools, witnessed the “three-tier” occurrences of overt reverse racism. As they walked past the Creole School located at St. Patrick’s Church, for instance, some of the students at the Creole School (they themselves also born of African descent), would taunt these children by yelling out and calling them “niggers.” Some of those former public school students remember vividly the names and faces of those Creole School students who made this part of their daily afternoon routines.
The Adams-Onis Treaty authorized people of mixed heritage, Creoles, full citizenship rights that included educational advantages, property ownership, the right to own slaves, inheritance rights, the right to buy and sell liquor, and the right to vote. However, Creoles were never granted full citizenship rights as stated in the United States Constitution. Additionally, “…free people of color were systematically isolated and segregated. According to Historian, Leon Litwack, ‘free blacks were often educated in segregated schools, punished in segregated prisons, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries.’” “Creoles themselves were later gradually subjected to a loss of the few rights that they were initially granted.”
The United States moved forward from 1813 until the onset of the Civil War until the Confederate States of America seceded from the Union in 1861. Most White Alabamians viewed American Slavery as an integral part of the state’s economic and social survival. They opposed any attempts to change this socially acceptable “way of life,” so much so that Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861 as it fought for the right to maintain the “peculiar institution.” In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves who resided in states that were in rebellion against the Union were henceforth and forever freed. When the War Between the States ended in 1865, the southern states that had seceded were gradually permitted to rejoin the Union once those states rewrote their Constitutions.
African French or African Spanish Creoles enjoyed certain rights as free people prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, even though they themselves continued to suffer from a number of segregated practices, which begs the question: Why did certain members of Mobile’s Creole population decide to support the Confederacy during the War Between the States, especially in view of the fact that some of them, their parents and grandparents had been slaves?
Over the course of Mobile’s three hundred year history, and from every indication, it appeared that some of Mobile’s local people with fair skin occasionally relinquished their African heritage and “passed” for White. Moreover, it appears that some of Mobile’s White citizens relinquished their heritage and “passed” as African Creoles or Mulattos in order to live with, or to marry, people of African descent.
From the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, racial subordination in the United States was a central feature relative to Mobile’s people of color. It would later become the central feature of the Creole and Mulatto experience as well. In theory, for instance, even those who claimed Creole or Mulatto descent either by “bloodline” or through American Slavery were bona fide citizens, and were extended all rights and privileges guaranteed in the United States Constitution. In practice, however, Mobile’s African Creoles witnessed a loss of those few political, economic, social, and educational rights and privileges that they were previously allowed to enjoy.
In 1817, the state of Alabama was organized as a separate territory, and on December 14, 1819 was admitted to the Union as the twenty-second state. Alabama’s “peculiar institution” existed in Mobile during this period, when Whites and some people of African descent, including those who themselves were former slaves, maintained slavery. Slavery dominated the economy, and produced cotton for export.
Rivers were the prime means of transportation although the state’s first railroad began to operate in 1832, with about 683 miles of tracks laid by 1860. Mobile, a growing seaport, was Alabama’s only city of notable size.
Although international slave trade had been outlawed since 1808, the last slave ship, SS Clotilda, delivered its kidnapped bounty of African men and women to Mobile in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.
“Mobile, the state’s only seaport, and the Confederacy’s second largest Gulf port, virtually lost its cotton trade during the War Between the States due to the Federal blockade and Confederate embargo. Escaping direct attack until the end of the war, the city of 30,000 in 1860 grew to about 45,000 in 1865 as it served the Confederacy as a site for training camps, recreation, and medical care.” One such site was the military campground located on Davis Avenue, where one of the Confederate military magazines still stands more than 142 years later. Additionally, a shipyard located at Mon Luis Island served as a site for Confederate shipbuilding during the Civil War period.
Mobile’s people of color gained political and social rights beginning in 1865, during a period in which Historian and Educator W.E.B. DuBois called “Black Reconstruction.” While the African American community did strive to maintain equal rights, social problems continued to be a mainstay in the “City by the Bay.” An attempt to remedy the problems that Mobile’s minorities encountered was not a new issue. “[By] 1867, on the eve of Radical Reconstruction, for example, Blacks in cities such as Mobile… had already challenged ordinances, company rules and customs that barred them from, or segregated them in, the horse drawn streetcars.”
There was a sharp increase in the African American urban population in the South between 1860 and 1870, Alabama notwithstanding. The minority population in Mobile, for instance, had grown by more than 57 percent during this period. Following the Civil War, Census data for 1870 reveals an even greater proportion of African Americans, perhaps resulting from a better counting procedure than during times of American Slavery. However, by 1874, White Democrats, including numerous former supporters of the Confederacy, had regained control of the state. During the years that followed, racial segregation was written into many state and local laws. Additionally, the year 1877 witnessed the decline of Black Reconstruction.
A number of scholarly publications specifically written about Mobile tend to ignore the vast number of unique contributions made by all of Mobile’s minorities, notwithstanding the successful communities many of them created.
During American Slavery, Protestants, for instance, led one of the most profound moves ever initiated by slaves in Mobile. Rev. Richard Fields, also known as “Uncle Dick,” led in the formation of Stone Street Baptist Church in 1806. Many African American Protestants, followers of “Uncle Dick,” and later others, fought for the right to maintain religious autonomy. Hence, they acquired full autonomy soon after 1865.
Much of the history about Mobile’s African American settlements may be readily determined by noting each “village” that embraced the historic church, a number of which still remain at their original sites. These “villages” confirm that Africans in America, including Freedmen and Creoles, maintained thriving “villages” in such areas as Springhill, “Sandtown,” and Crichton. The communities embraced churches such as the historic Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and the historic Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. Additionally, African Americans settled in “villages” located in Cottage Hill. Generations later, many minorities still live and own property that embraces the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, founded by Africans in America.
People of color created “villages” in other areas throughout the city. Following the Civil War, the “Camp Ground,” for instance, became home to many minorities, including Freedmen, Mulattos, and Creoles. The area’s population continued to increase, and later enjoined the “villages” in the “Bottom,” which developed into a political stronghold that Mobile’s politicians referred to simply as “Ward Seven.” Additionally, “villages” within the “Camp Ground” community embraced historic minority churches.
Those historic churches included El Bethel Primitive Baptist Church on Live Oak Street; Truevine Baptist Church, originally located in the “Bottom”; Hope Chapel AME Zion Church, originally on Cuba Street; Stone Street Baptist Church, Alabama’s oldest, when it later moved to the “Avenue District”; Aimwell Baptist Church, originally on Joachim Street, but relocated to Earle Street; and St. Anthony Catholic Mission that moved further east on Davis Avenue.
Men and women of African descent, though a small number, established and operated their own businesses both during and after American Slavery. For instance, some men practiced the barbering trade as early as the sixteenth century and remained prominent in this field well into the twentieth century. By the nineteenth century, they had founded their own banks, newspapers, restaurants, ship yard, and manufacturing enterprises.
The 1870 United States Census for Mobile lists a number of Freedmen working on jobs such as draymen, laborers, domestic servants, railroad workers, carpenters, laundresses, rag pickers, barbers, hack drivers, steamboat hands, steamboat cooks, and waiters at bars, and some owned property. Mobile’s people of African descent also searched for loved ones who had previously been sold. Additionally, most raised families, educated their children, attended their local churches, joined societies, and thus were productive citizens.
As another case in point, around 1905 the home, drug stores, and office of Dr. H. Roger Williams, a physician, were located in the 600 block of Dauphin Street, and on property that the physician owned. Additionally, Dr. T.N. Harris, another African American physician, owned the property where his Infirmary stood, also on Dauphin Street.
People of color formed “villages” in the downtown community, where the historic African American churches that they embraced were originally built during and following American Slavery, and in most cases, still remain. An African American “village” was situated within the original Downtown Seat. Located between Broad and Water Streets was the “village” that is now named DeTonti Square.
African American churches that remain within the radius of Mobile’s original Downtown Seat include St. Louis Street Missionary Baptist Church on Dearborn and St. Louis Streets; Emanuel AME Church on St. Michael Street; Big Zion AME Zion Church on Bayou Street downtown; State Street AME Zion Church, originally on St. Michael Street, and relocated to State Street; Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, originally located on Jackson and St. Michael Streets, but moved to Davis Avenue; and Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, formerly St. Anthony Mission, was originally located on Ann Street at Davis Avenue, but moved further east on Davis Avenue to accommodate Catholic people of color who lived Downtown.
People of African descent also formed communities in north Mobile County. The community “villages” in Chastang, for instance, embraced churches such as the historic St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, founded by Jesuit Missionaries in 1860 at 27 Mile Bluff. People of African-French and African-Spanish descent also lived in the “Down the Bay villages” that embraced St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. A great number of minority Protestants who also lived in the “Down the Bay villages” during and following the early part of the twentieth century embraced other nearby communities to practice their faith.
The Mobile Diocese created a new boundary, the purpose of which was to spread the Catholic faith to African Americans, or people of color, who lived beyond Government Street to Cedar Point Road, and as far south as Mon Luis Island. The Diocese opened St. Joseph Catholic Church in a new community named Maysville. However, St. Joseph’s also served a number of students and families in other areas such as Crichton, “Down the Bay,” and the Creek Circle “village” located in Toulminville.
Additionally, following World War II the federal government built several public housing complexes for Mobile’s people of color: Orange Grove, H. Roger Williams, Jesse Thomas, AF Owens, Josephine Allen in the Happy Hills community near Africatown that embraces the historic Union Baptist Church, the historic Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, and the historic Yorktown Baptist Church.
The new Alabama state Constitution of 1901 disfranchised Mobile’s people of color and reduced the approximate number of voters from 140,000 to 3,742. This was an example of how effective “jim crow” laws were during this period.
Another example of the extent of “jim crow” was the passage of a municipal streetcar ordinance in 1903 that segregated Freedmen in Mobile by race. But, due to the status of Creoles during this period, and because Mobile held such a high rate of miscegenation, it became difficult for Mobile’s municipal government to enforce the streetcar ordinance, or ordinances in other areas such as parks, hotels, and restaurants.
It was not long before special status for some gradually became a thing of the past, and regardless of the treaty that granted certain freedoms to some, all persons of color in Mobile were eventually treated as political, economic, social, religious, and educational second-class citizens. In 1908, for instance, the Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee barred Creoles from voting in municipal elections.
The Mobile Archdiocese moved a step further when it eventually closed all African Creole schools. In another instance, and from every indication, the St. Peter Claver Church and School opened as an apparent means of segregating Catholics by race. It appeared that in the eyes of the Church, and regardless of rights that they previous enjoyed, African Creoles, along with other people of color, became “equals” within the framework of institutionalized racism.
It was not surprising that Mobile’s African Americans experienced “jim crow” laws. This was the South, and was the norm. However, “dejure” and “defacto” segregation was also practiced in other areas and especially throughout the United States. As a case in point, “… in Oklahoma, telephone booths were segregated. Additionally, Mississippi had separate soft-drink machines for people of color and Whites.
In Atlanta, an African American witness could not ‘swear to tell the truth’ on the same Bible used by White witnesses. In Washington, D.C., people of color could not bury their dead dogs or cats in the same pet cemeteries used by Caucasians.” And, in 1955, the governor of Georgia banned Georgia Tech University from playing in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans because their opponent, the University of Pittsburgh had an African American football player. Even though the students protested against the governor’s decision, Georgia Tech did not play in the game.”
“Dejure and defacto segregation was rampant in other cities as well. One law tried to stop people of color and White cotton-mill workers from looking out the same window. In Florida, school textbooks for White and African American students were segregated in separate warehouses. And in some Alabama towns it was against the law for African Americans and Whites to play cards, checkers, or dominoes together.”
At the onset of “jim crow” around 1876, Mobile witnessed struggles for social and political rights through a number of civil rights and social activists, such as editor A.N. Johnson, insurance executive C. First Johnson, Reverend Albert F. Owens, Reverend A.N. McEwen, and Dr. A.D. Simington.
Moreover, Gilbert Faustina, a Mobile Catholic Layman, made a strategic move that led to changes for all of Mobile’s Catholics of African descent. Not only was this move felt in Mobile, it was felt throughout Alabama and the southern region, the United States, and abroad. In 1909, Faustina initiated the idea, and later helped to found, the Knights of Peter Claver. Further, during this period under the leadership of Bishop Michael Portier and with assistance from the courts, Faustina fought for, and won, the right to maintain autonomy within the Knights of Peter Claver.
By 1920 Reconstruction had occurred, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the South had begun to stabilize. The proportion of African Americans remaining in Mobile County and Alabama declined somewhat following the Great Migration. Nationally, the ratio of Whites increased substantially with the influx of Eastern European and Irish Immigrants.
During the period leading up to World War I and the decade that followed, people of color in Mobile continued to feel the impact of “jim crow. ” The first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Branch in Mobile was chartered in 1919, and founded by businessman W.E. Morton and several local leaders. In 1925, John L. LeFlore, a letter carrier for the United States Post Office, along with several local leaders, initiated a second charter. In 1964, following an eight-year injunction against the NAACP, a third charter, initiated by newspaper editor Frank P. Thomas, businessman and civil rights activist Clarence H. Montgomery, and Phil Savage of the national NAACP, was implemented. Dr. Robert W. Gilliard, a local dentist, became the new president.
Following the turn of the Twentieth Century, some neighborhoods experienced a rise in the number of nightclubs, cafes, and “rooming” and boarding houses throughout the African American community. Moreover, during the period of statewide prohibition, followed by prohibition throughout the nation, a trend developed around the city, state, region, and the nation, Mobile’s African American community notwithstanding. The establishment of “speakeasies,” or “hit houses,” gambling houses, and “whip shacks,” or “short order” houses, coupled with the illegal sale of “shinny,” was prevalent and remained in parts of the community for several decades.
Music, a major part of Mobile’s African American heritage and culture, gained prominence in the “City by the Bay.” Mobile was not without its share of folk music that was maintained through traditional gospel, blues, jazz, and pop during the 1920s and beyond. The list, a “who’s who” in music, included composer and conductor James Reese Europe, Charles Lipskin, John C. Pope, Excelsior Brass Band, Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams, the Pope Sisters, the Nicholas Brothers, Pomp Gaston and the Melody Masters, Onzie Steele, Fred Wesley, Sr., Edward Pratt, and the Gator Brothers, one of whom was George “Lakey” Matthews. Moreover, Mary Lou Williams co-wrote the lyrics to her noted tune, “Walkin’” with Mobilian Lindsay Steele.
During later years Mobile’s African American community expressed its heritage and culture through other prominent artists. Lil Greenwood and Cootie Williams, for instance, were prominent with Duke Ellington, and drummer John “Jabo” Starks was prominent with other artists such as James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Jr., B.B. King, and the “J.B.s.” Trombonist Fred Wesley, Jr., a writer and arranger of music, played with Ike and Tina Turner, wrote and arranged, and played for James Brown, and for the “J.B.s.” Theodore Arthur, a record producer and arranger, played with artists such as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor, and Aretha Franklin. Joe Lewis, also a record producer and arranger, has played with Ray Charles and Millie Jackson. The Lewis Brothers, Marion and Joe, have played throughout the country.
Additionally, many artists such as B.B. King came to town to work in various clubs- especially to Club Harlem. Tom Couch assisted a number of widely acclaimed artists with help in obtaining members for their bands.
During the 1930s, following the greatest economic crisis in the nation’s history, Mobile reaped a number of benefits from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later renamed the Work Projects Administration. The WPA devised ways to help minorities maintain their sense of self-esteem. Even though inequities existed under the New Deal programs, the WPA did include the financially and politically disenfranchised and geographically dispersed people of color.
As a case in point, in 1936 the WPA sponsored a new playground on Davis Avenue. Additionally, the WPA sponsored Musicians’ Concerts. The WPA also sponsored “Oral History” Projects that provided means for former slaves to discuss their past, thus providing “points of departure” for millions of African Americans in Mobile, and throughout the nation, to discover their roots.
A new shipyard emerged in Mobile during World War II. The Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company ADDSCO, located at Pinto Island, employed about 18,500 men and women, of which about 6,000 were people of color. A race riot ensued in 1943, when ADDSCO upgraded some of the African American men. The riot drew attention to Mobile’s de facto segregation practices.
Mobile’s people of color fought for social and political rights soon after 1865. However, following World War II, during the 1950s and 1960s, struggles for political and social rights occurred in earnest in Alabama, Mobile notwithstanding. Several organizations continued to demand political, economic, and social justice.
People of color served on committees and formed organizations to help eliminate racial discrimination. For instance, in the 1940s John L. LeFlore, along with Dr. Benjamin F. Baker and C.E. Powell, served on the United Seaman’s Service Committee to represent African American seamen who worked on ships that were temporarily docked in the Mobile port. The seamen petitioned for the right to be housed in the George Self Hotel on St. Joseph and St. Michael Streets, where White seamen were housed.
A number of factions worked towards enhancing opportunities for Mobile’s people of color. The Monday Night Movement, led by AME Zion Bishop William M. Smith, and other local ministers such as Reverend Ed Williams, Reverend S.M. McCree, Sr., and Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, worked for years to obtain minority rights. Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW) was led by Noble Beasley, Dr. James Finley, Henry Murray Gardner, Fred Richardson, Willie Evans, Ocie Wheat, Dorothy P. Williams, Dr. Jerry Pogue, Melvin Davis, and David Jacobs.
In the 1970s, the Black Leadership Action Coalition (BLAC) was formed. Leaders included Samuel L. Jones, Merceria Ludgood, Esq., Michael A. Figures, Esq., H. James Chatmon, Wali Abdel Ra’oof, and Ernest “Bud” Morrison.
The Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC) was formed throughout the state of Alabama. The Mobile Chapter included leaders such as Joseph Mitchell, Ph.D., Michael A. Figures, Esq., and Janetta Whitt-Mitchell.
Harry Austin and Casmarah Mani founded the People’s Community Hall. The organization developed a strong coalition with other civil rights organizations in their quest for political, economic, social, and educational justice.
In addition to organizations, numerous local people struggled with local, state, and federal courts, or with representatives of the federal government. Some of them were: Gilbert Faustina, Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, John LeFlore, James Hood, Clarence Montgomery, Dr. Maynard V. Foster, Vivian Malone, Alexander “Alex” Herman, Wiley Bolden, Dr. Janet LeFlore, Birdie Mae Davis, Dorothy Davis, Henry Hobdy, W.O. Powell, and James Buskey.
Cultural enrichment continued in Mobile when innovative and culturally inspired teachers such as J.D. Whitfield from Central High School exposed students to “jabberwalks” in the public schools. Alice Banks introduced Model LaMode to the community and gave rise to other similar companies throughout Mobile. Additionally, Gladys Cooper founded Culture in Black and White, with spectacular performances created by Dr. Joaquin Holloway, Jr.
By 1960, the proportion of the number of people of color in Alabama declined, Mobile County included. By the year 2000, however, the ratio of African Americans in Mobile County again increased, suggesting that Mobile was a comfortable environment for African Americans for the new millennium.
As a result of both American Slavery and the Civil War, the population of African Americans in Alabama has remained higher than the national proportion. Moreover, the ratio of African American to White citizens in Mobile continues to be higher than either Alabama or the United States as a whole.
While racial discrimination was prevalent among all of Mobile’s African Americans, social circumstances created years of “class” and “caste” within their own community. However, the community as a whole continued to maintain a unique three hundred year history.
Through their early ancestral “roots,” African Americans carved out and maintained a life for themselves in the “City by the Bay.” As discovered in the “new” histories, Mobile’s African Americans never ceased in their struggle for inherent rights. Later, following the addition of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, people of color fought for civil rights as defined by those “Civil War” Amendments. In fact, African Americans never faltered in their quest for political, religious, economic, social, and educational survival, or in their determination to retain a cultural heritage in their home, Mobile.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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About the Author
Shawn A. Bivens, a Mobile native and member of St. Joseph Catholic Church, graduated from St. Joseph Catholic School. She attended St. Peter High School in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from Lillie B. Williamson High School in Mobile. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from Spring Hill College, and a Master of Education degree from Alabama State University. Bivens is in the Ph.D. program in United States History at Howard University, and has completed dissertation research on the social movement of Mobile''s people of color.
The author is past President of the Howard, Zeta Gamma Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society, and the past President of the Graduate Student Council. Under her leadership, the Council established the Howard Chapter, National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, a membership of more than 13,000 graduate students. Bivens also represented Howard students on President H. Patrick Swygert''s special committee to establish the National Center for African American Heritage and Culture, chaired by Dr. Cain Hope Felder.
Bivens served on the team of Howard''s history graduate research assistants for the "African American Sailors in the Civil War Project," under Joseph P. Reidy, Ph. D., Principle Investigator. Part of the "Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Project" of the National Park Service, the Project was funded by the Department of Defense Legacy. Bivens was research assistant on the Supreme Chief Justice John Marshall Research Project for Olive A. Taylor, Ph.D., Principle Investigator. The author was also honoured to have among her scholarly listening audience, Dr. John Hope Franklin and Attorney Fred Gray, when she traveled to England to present a research paper at the University of Hull, in England in 1996. Among other awards, the author was recipient of the prestigious 1996 Rayford Wittingham Logan Paper Prize from Howard''s Department of History; Special Graduate Student Recognition from Dr. Lorraine Anderson Williams in 1996, for work with the "Annual Lorraine Anderson Williams Lecture"; and, Outstanding leadership Award from graduate students in 1997.
The history educator is a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History; National Education Association; American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians; Southern Historical Association; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; National Genealogical Society; Alabama Tombstone Transcription Project; Black Heritage Council of the Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Historical Association.
Explore Black Families of Alabama''s Black Belt, a collection of genealogical records for six Alabama counties
Search Alabama African American Marriages from the AlGenWeb
Explore the Holdings of the Mobile Public Library Local History and Genealogy collection
Explore The Alabama Supreme Court on Slaves, by Dwayne Cox: a collection of notes on decisions, arranged in topical order, which reflect the variety of legal issues regarding slaves.
Listen to samples of traditional music of Alabama at the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture
View African-American History Research Sources at the University of South Alabama Archives
View Lesson Plans for The Ex-Slave Narratives, by Dick Parsons
View Riding the Bus - Taking a Stand, a lesson plan from the Alabama Department of Archives & History