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Spring Hill, South Alabama collaborate on first feature documentary film on Africatown

After nearly a year of filming activity, the first major feature documentary film on the origins and establishment of Africatown, whose working title is “110: The Last Enslaved Africans Brought to America,” will be wrapping production in the next few weeks. Africatown, also known as Plateau, is a small, predominantly black neighborhood a few miles north of downtown Mobile on land that was originally purchased after the Civil War by a group of enslaved Africans who had been brought illegally to this Southern port city in 1860.

The 110 Africans, most of whom were young adults, were forcibly boarded onto the ship Clotilda in the city of Ouidah in what is now the country of Benin in west Africa. Timothy Meaher, who owned the ship and commissioned the excursion, and William Foster, who captained the ship, were ostensibly attempting to demonstrate the viability of re-opening the international slave trade in the United States after its prohibition in 1807.

Those 110 Africans were disbursed among several slave-owning enterprises in south Alabama but, at the conclusion of the Civil War, many of those who had bonded under their shared traumatic circumstances reunited. Initially, they attempted to procure the means to return to their various homes in Africa but when this expensive endeavor proved impossible, they began to form a community, based on their only-known traditions from Africa, that eventually became known as Africatown.

While this history has garnered a great deal of attention in recent months, one of the producers, Joél Lewis Billingsley, PhD said, “After starting this project last year, I knew there was local and statewide interest in the history of the Africans of Africatown. Although we were not sure how widespread this interest, our goal was to represent the strength, perseverance and legacy of the 110. I am glad to know that when the documentary is released there will be a captive audience nationally and internationally.”

The producing team is collaborating faculty members from Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama including: Ryan Noble, director; Billingsley, producer; Kern Jackson, PhD, co-producer; Pamela Moore, EdD, co-producer; and Robert Gray, PhD, co-producer, formerly of University of South Alabama, now at University of Bergen.

Spring Hill College is serving as the fiscal agent and manager for the project and both the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood have granted production funds for the project.

The filmmakers explained that the content of the documentary includes interviews of historians, most importantly Sylviane Diouf, the author of “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” considered the most significant text of this history, and that the content is also “based on archival material, documents, past scholarship, contemporary scholarship, and past and contemporary oral history.” Beyond documentary film content, they also said that they “hope to create an innovative approach to the descriptive depictions of the life that was left behind in Africa, the trauma of being captured, sold into slavery, and ‘shipped’ across the Atlantic, and the heroic survival of enslavement in Alabama.”

“The uniqueness of Africatown and its original residents became a national story in the second generation following the Civil War,” added Noble. “However, the curiosity and cultural tourism of that time did not initiate any enduring processes for saving or maintaining many of the physical, cultural remnants of that early settlement. As such, another goal of the documentary film is to advocate for the preservation of the cultural history that once flourished there and any remaining physical sites of historic value.”

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