Africatown is a small low-income African American community that resides in Mobile, Alabama. The site of the last slave ship to come to the United States in 1860, Africatown was formed as a small community by a group of 32 West Africans after slavery was abolished . Africatown was thriving: freedman bought land from their previous owners, shaping a self-governing community drawn from African traditions .
A good site for industrial plants and mills because of its location along the water, a paper plant was built on the edge of Africatown in 1928 on land first owned by former slave trader and slave owner A. Meaher Jr. By the 1970s, industrial factories surrounded Africatown . After several decades of the paper plant's operation and its chemical refinery next door, the town began to experience abnormally high rates of cancer, with dozens of reported cases per year and growing . One year had even reported an astonishing number of 20 cases of cancer . In the late 1990s, the EPA found dangerous levels of over a dozen pollutants in a nearby town, one that was not even surrounded by the factories like Africatown was . As of 2020, two of the five largest industrial polluters in Mobile County are adjacent to Africatown .
What was once a town of nearly 12,000 residents has now become a mostly abandoned ghost town of just 2,000. Most major industries have left Africatown, including the paper mill in 2000, leaving behind polluted air, polluted water and an unemployment crisis.
In 2017, a group of about 1,200 residents filed a lawsuit against the company International Paper, which had owned the now-closed paper plant. Residents claimed that International Paper's improper waste management over the decades had led to contaminated land and water, resulting in a high prevalence of cancer in Africatown. International Paper continues to deny any allegations and the lawsuit still open, making the future of Africatown uncertain.
Africatown's plight has, however, garnered the attention of Senator Cory Booker and former Chief of Environmental Justice for the EPA, Mustafa Santiago Ali, who now works for the non-profit human and civil rights group Hip Hop Caucus. Residents of Africatown have met with these environmental justice leaders to discuss the problem and possible solutions.
The threat of major industry in the surrounding area is still a concern, as in a future land use plan for the city of Mobile, much of the land surrounding Africatown is zoned for heavy industry use. This land use plan increases the threat of pollution as well as the loss of local businesses.
One major industry that poses a threat to Africatown in the future are chemical water treatment plants. One such company is Kemira Water Solutions, which has proposed an expansion project on a chemical plant located in Chickasaw - also part of Mobile County. The expansion, aiming to be complete in 2020, would include a new chemical production unit which would make Bio-Acrylamide, a highly toxic chemical used in the production of paper, dye, plastics, and in the treatment of drinking water and wastewater . Exposure to high amounts of acrylamide is known to cause nerve damage and cancer in animals, including humans .
Members of an environmental group, C.H.E.S.S. from Africatown have confronted state environmental regulators to voice their distrust, using the town's past of cancer and pollution as reasoning . Kemira officials argue that emissions will not be increased, but residents of Africatown and others in Mobile Country are skeptical. As of today, the fight for environmental justice and exposures to toxic pollution in Africatown continues .