Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives

Shannon Quinn - October 20, 2018

In 1807 to 1808, the United States outlawed the slave trade, and started prosecuting people who captured new slaves and bring them into the country. However, they would not outlaw owning slaves for several more decades. Slaves that had been purchased before 1808 were still considered to be private property, and the children of those slaves were not allowed to go free. They were considered assets of the family that owned them, and they became the next generation of servants that were bound.

In 1860 Mobile, Alabama, one businessman named Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could smuggle a hundred new African slaves into the United States, even though it was against the law. No one believed him, so he decided to prove that it could be done. This single bar bet changed the lives of thousands of people, and it lead to the establishment of Africatown, Alabama.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives

The Bet That Cost People Their Lives

Timothy Meaher was a wealthy businessman from Mobile, Alabama who owned a company called International Paper. He specialized in trading goods all around the world. He owned a huge amount of land and a lumber mill, which was used to make paper. Large boats would carry the paper goods to other countries. He was able to make a huge fortune off of his business. Many parts of Europe had a shortage of trees that they could cut down and make into paper, but America was full of them.

As a wealthy man living in the south, Meaher would often hear his friends grumbling about how they were angry that they were no longer allowed to purchase new African slaves, and they had to settle for the ones they already had. At this point, it was over 50 years since the laws had changed, so the number of slaves that were passed down to the new generation of slave owners was getting smaller.

The richest men living in Mobile, Alabama would spend their weekends in riverboat casinos drinking, gambling, and smoking cigars. Timothy Meaher claimed that he was so great at conducting international trade, he could bring anything into the country- even slaves.

Since these men were already used to high-stakes gambling, someone bet Meaher $100,000 that he couldn’t actually bring a hundred new African slaves into Alabama without getting caught. In today’s money, that’s more like $2.5 million. Meaher accepted the challenge. A man named Captain William Foster worked for Meaher, and he was given the task of taking $9,000 in gold to buy the slaves by any means necessary. Foster hired a crew of men to help him.

Foster learned that the west African tribes were still going to war with one another, and that there were still opportunities to buy captured slaves. They built a schooner called the Clotilda, and they arrived on the shore of a country called Benin. There were thousands of people who had been captured from various tribes and countries. It is estimated that Foster bought 110 to 125 slaves, because his boss needed 100 to win the bet. He thought that it was always possible that some of them would die on the journey back to the United States, which is why they needed to buy a few extra. Thankfully, none of them died.

Captain Foster knew that the authorities would be waiting for them in Alabama. The rumors about the bet that Meaher made on the riverboat had gone through the town, so the authorities were searching every boat that entered Mobile Harbor, looking for these smuggled slaves.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives
The slaves were moved to a steamboat like this one to make their way down the Mississippi River. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Foster anchored the ship in a smaller harbor in Mississippi near the Alabama border. He rode on horseback to meet Timothy Meaher and let them know the location of the Clotilda. They brought a river steamboat over to the Clotilda, and moved the slaves over to the new boat. River boats went up and down the Mississippi River all the time, and they were usually filled with tourists or people who were looking to have a good time. There was no reason for the police to want to inspect a river boat.

When they arrived on the shore, Meaher burned the boat to destroy the evidence. Remains of the wreck still lay on the shore of Mobile Bay. Timothy Meaher was even taken to court to answer for the crimes that he was accused of, but but there was not enough evidence to convict him. He got away with it.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives
Cudjoe Lewis was one of the founding members of Africatown, and one of the last to survive. Credit: Vulture

The Founding of Africatown

Once he won the bet, Timothy Meaher sold the slaves on the down-low, but kept many of them to work on his land. After slavery was abolished in 1865, he couldn’t care less what happened to the people he brought over. He was not about to spend the money to take them home, either. So he let them go. Many of them didn’t know how to speak English, and white people were not allowed to purchase new slaves anymore, they couldn’t exactly find a place to live or work.

Meaher allowed them to live on his property in the north end of Mobile, in a plot of dense forest known as Hog Bayou. As the name suggests, wild boars ran through the woods, as well as deer. The water was full of fish, and lush vegetation was all around them, as well. As members of African tribes, they still knew how to hunt and survive on their own. This area became known as “Africatown”, and it was the first all-black neighborhood in the United States.

The people who came over on the Clotilda did not spend very much time living as slaves, so they still spoke their native languages and very much held on to their cultural values. These former African slaves wanted to go back to their homeland, but their former owners refused to help fund the journey. In Africatown, they were able to govern themselves under tribal law. They became the first and only African-American community to do so.

The former slaves who were born in the United States and spoke English didn’t know how to survive in the wild on their own, and they didn’t have enough money to figure out a way to travel back to their native villages. When they found Africatown, they were accepted with open arms. They were taught how to hunt and fish.

Some of these people reached out to Timothy Meaher for work. He and his brother James owned a lumber mill, so they agreed to take on some of these former slaves as paid employees. With this money, they were able to buy private property and make themselves Africatown an official part of Mobile, Alabama. Unfortunately, white business owners would eventually take away the little piece of home that these people had built for themselves.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives
Cudjoe Lewis in his home in the 1930’s. Credit: Vulture

The last remaining person who was still living in Africatown who came over on the Clotilda was a man named Cudjoe Lewis. He gave an interview about the whole story of what happened to the slaves who were smuggled into Alabama in the 1930’s, but his testimony was buried in the town archives for decades. An author named Zora Neale Hurston found his story and wrote a book called Barracoon: The Story of The Last Black Cargo.

As the years went on, more and more factories were built around the bay. At first, people living in Africatown loved this, because it created more jobs. The town grew bigger with a grocery store, Elk’s Lodge, barber shops, motel, and movie theater. The only problem was the massive chemical refinery that opened up right next to the town, billowing putrid and toxic smoke over the homes of the people. According to residents, there were days when even stepping outside and breathing the air would make people sick and vomit.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives
Many of the houses in Africatown look like this, because the population has dropped in recent years. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Legacy of Africatown

By the 1970’s, the pollution from the factories was enough to make plenty of people want to leave Africatown for good. It was no longer safe to breathe the air. Cars would rust after being only a couple years old, and roofs of houses were disintegrating. Something was seriously toxic.

In the 1980’s, a huge portion of Africatown was torn down to construct a highway. While they were digging, they uncovered a huge field of bones. Residents say that it was a graveyard of unmarked graves of the slaves who died on the Clotilda. The government said they were just “dog bones”. They kept moving forward, paving the land. Many residents believe that they actually paved over top of the cemetery of forgotten souls, but it’s too late to prove anything.

In the later 80’s to late 90’s, the nearby factories released over 600,000 pounds of chloroform into the air. That’s right- chloroform. That same chemical you see in every movie that makes people pass out when they breath it in. And it just so happens to cause cancer, too.

Africatown, Alabama Was Founded After A White Man Bet He Could Smuggle in a Hundred New African Slaves, Costing Thousands Their Lives
The original cemetary in Africatown. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The town started having 2 to 3 funerals of residents dying from cancer every week, and people were only living to be in their 40’s or 50’s. Multiple people in every single family were dying from cancer. By the year 2000, International Paper Company and Scott Paper Company closed their factories in that area, but b then, the damage was already done. At its peak, Africatown had 15,000 residents. Now, there are only 2,000. Hundreds of people came together to file a class action lawsuit against the companies, but they were told that there was not enough evidence proving that the chemicals directly caused the cancer. Despite this setback, the residents are continuing to push for grants that would help them clean up the pollution that is still left behind from the factories.

According to Nick Tabor from The New Yorker, Africatown is now filled with abandoned buildings, dusty roads, and mistrust of outsiders. White people took everything they had, and kept making things worse. But there are residents who are determined to make the town as great as it once was in its heyday, and encourage more people to move back there, now that the air is cleaner. The citizens still honor the memories of the lives of the people from the Clotilda every single year, and they have plans to open a new museum sometime in the future.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Barracoon: The Story of The Last Black Cargo. Zora Neale Hurston. Harper Collins. 2018.

Africa Town A Story Worth Knowing, A Community Worth Renewing. YouTube.

Africatown and the 21st Century Stain of Slavery. Nick Tabor. New York Magazine.

Africatown. Joshua Foer. Atlas Obscura.