Mobile is a city with a history as deep and complicated as her own rich past. In a very real sense, the history of slavery in Mobile, and to a larger extent Alabama as a whole, is a public shame. A skeleton in the city's closet, which has all too often been kept locked away. But slavery was a huge part of Mobile's past and it cannot be discounted in any study of the area. This study strives to serve as a skeleton key to open the closet of secrets and allow the history of slavery in the area to be understood so as never to be repeated again.
Europe's first documented explorer in the Mobile area was Spanish navigator Alonzo Pineda (pictured at left), who entered Mobile Bay with four ships in 1519. He mapped the location and named it the Bay of the Holy Spirit (pictured at right). The native population of Mauvilla Indians welcomed the explorers, and the Spaniards spent forty days at the site repairing their ships. Several other exploratory ventures follow this first infiltration, but none of consequence until 1685. In that year, the Spanish commissioned reconnaissance missions, resulting in rediscovery and further exploration of Mobile Bay. (Mobile Convention and Visitors)
The Frenchman, LaSalle, was the first to think of colonizing the area. LaSalle was assassinated before he could see his idea enacted, but Iberville LeMoyne proved a worthy successor. He and his brother, Bienville, established the Louisiana colony in 1699. (Powell, 331) In 1702, Iberville moved the main settlement, once at Biloxi, to 27-Mile Bluff on Mobile Bay.
The colony seemed, at first, to be on a collision course with disaster. Feeling themselves too high-class to work diligently, the colonists faltered in their preliminary efforts. The colony grew through war and diplomacy with the natives. Colonists allied with the Choctaw and Creek Indian tribes, and the Chickasaw Indians were also relatively friendly.
In 1710, the site moved from 27 Mile Bluff to a more strategic location at Fort Conde (pictured at left). This fort was built and the city of Mobile was structured around it. The French fanned out in the area, exploring and establishing amiable relations with the native population. The French held the colony by dealing with Indians in an 'intelligent, diplomatic matter.' (Powell, 336)
From 1701-1711, Mobile enjoyed prominence as the capital of French Louisiana. Under the trade monopoly of John Law's 'Company of the West,' which lasted from 1717-1731, Mobile's commerce flourished. Supplies to the colony became more dependable, and with the importation of slaves, agriculture blossomed. Major exports included pitch, tar, lumber, tobacco, rice, corn, beans, indigo, and cotton. Mobile's power was reduced greatly when it lost its prominence as capital of Louisiana, and commerce reverted to the control of the French crown from 1731-1763. (Mobile Convention and Visitors) Mutiny was still an issue on the outposts of the city, but Mobile was plagued with more pressing problems. When Bienville left in 1740, the French influence over the Indians greatly declined. The question of safety led the leaders of the city to shrink the town and put up gates around the city limits. The south and west parts of the city were sold to Madame de Lusser for her plantation, which was cultivated by slaves. (Powell, 341)
Mobile transferred to British control with the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years War in 1763. Fort Conde was renamed 'Fort Charlotte' for George III's young queen and 17 years of English rule began. This relatively short rule by the British was followed by a Spanish takeover. The Spaniard Galvez, of Louisiana, attacked Mobile in the spring of 1780 and on March 14, 1780, the city became Spanish. Foreign commerce languished under the mercantilist Spanish Government, but trade with the native populations was reorganized in this time. (Mobile Convention and Visitors)
On April 15, 1813, Mobile became a city of the United States. The Americanization of the city led to great population growth as immigrants from the Atlantic states settled in Mobile. (Powell, 352) Mobilians, it is apparent, were neither part of the early revolutionaries, nor did they partake in the Revolutionary War. Mobile enjoyed a half a century of prosperity as the second largest international seaport on the Gulf Coast. At this time, progress was based on the sovereignty of 'King Cotton.'
One need look no further than Mobile's name to understand the importance of the indigenous people in Mobile's history. The city is named for the Mauvilla Indians, who served as Pineda's host in his initial voyage into the area. Mauvilla, the word for 'boat paddlers' was retained as the name of the area after Pineda left the village. Over time, Mauvilla evolved into Mobile. (Mobile Convention and Visitors) Yet the impact native peoples had over the history of Mobile did not end with the naming of the city, rather the indigenous peoples had a great impact during the time of colonization.
The Mauvilla Indians (typical dress pictured below) were the tribe most specifically clustered around Mobile Bay. However, the Europeans concentrated their relations with the larger Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, and to a lesser extent with the Cherokees and the Creeks. The Choctaw were a major tribe from the Mississippi region, whose dominance extended into Alabama in the area just north of modern day Mobile. The legend of how the Choctaw came to the region is as rich as the culture of the tribe itself.
The Choctaw charted their migration from the West to the Southeast according to a reading of a sacred pole placed upright in the ground at night. Each morning, the Choctaws would move in the direction in which the pole was leaning. The pole remained upright one day and the tribe remained in that spot adjacent to Mobile. The Choctaw were united under their leader, Chief Tascaluza at the time the Europeans entered the area. They were hunters and fishers, but mainly farmers of beans, squash, melon, pumpkin, and corn. Once exposed to the Europeans, they assimilated their farming methods with European technologies. (Rogers, 9) The Choctaws allied with the French. This alliance placed them at odds with the Chickasaw Indians who allied with the English - because of this the two groups were often at war with one another.
The natives of the area were neither docile nor were they accustomed to what the Europeans expected of them. This became apparent during Spanish rule when the missionary system sought to domesticate the natives. The missionaries taught Catholic dogma and Spanish tradition; furthermore, they taught the natives how to cultivate certain new fruits and vegetables. The missionaries' efforts, however, did not stop there. Seeing themselves as, first and foremost, agents of Spain they encouraged the Indians to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle, hoping to concentrate the natives into villages. When persuasion failed in the area, the missionaries attempted to use force. The Indians periodically revolted against these missionaries, and the mortality rate among the missionaries was high. (Powell, 334) However, this is the only reported instance of any serious attacks by the natives against the European settlers.
All in all, the relations between the natives of the area and the city of Mobile, once founded, were relatively amiable. Alliances were formed with the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the first decade of the 18th century. There was a later alliance formed with the Creek Indians and the Cherokees were friendly at times. (Powell, 334)
As early as 1701, the brothers Bienville were complaining to the French crown about the lack of labor in the Mobile area. In 1721, the first Africans arrived in Mobile on the French war ship, The Africane (pictured at left). This ship, which left Guinea with 240 slaves, arrived in Mobile with a mere 120 survivors. This started the chain of slave ships into Mobile Bay. The Marie, which carried 338 slaves, followed it; and next The Neride which started from Angola carrying 350 slaves and docked with a human cargo of only 238. (Rogers, 94)
Alabama slaves most often had origins in the grasslands or coastal plain of the West African rain forest. The slaves came from agricultural tribes with rich cultures and decentralized societies ruled by kings. (Rogers, 94)
The slaves were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean Islands where they were 'seasoned' for slave life. In this sadistic orientation to bondage, the English and French taught their captives to work in gangs and 'broke' the slaves into the regime of slavery. Unfortunately, no comfort awaited the captives after they were taken off the Islands and brought to Mobile. In Mobile, they were sold to residents for $176 - the price established by the French Western Company, which controlled commerce in the Louisiana Colony. Slaves who were not sold in Mobile were either floated up the Alabama River on flat barges for sale in the Northern portion of the state, or were sold along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. (Rogers, 94-95)
The slave population in the area grew as Spanish, British, and Yankee slave traders followed the French in bringing slaves to Mobile. Slaves brought into Alabama by their masters also buoyed the black population.
American slave traders imported large numbers of slaves into the Port of Mobile. These slavers purchased slaves on the East Coast and then took about 5-7 weeks to bring them to Mobile. The slave trade was at its height in autumn when the weather was favorable and many people had expendable money from the harvest. The sale of slaves in Mobile centered around the slave market on Royal Street which included the infamous auction blocks, as well as housing for slaves. (Rogers, 104)
Although the international slave trade was banned after 1807, the last know shipment of Africans into the Mobile area came in 1859 on Tim Meaher's Clotilde, which arrived with 116 slaves.
The story of the Clotilde "the last slave ship" is one of the most well known and intriguing aspects of slavery in the Mobile area. The story has its beginning in a wager made by a group of men in 1859. Captain Timothy Meaher, who had migrated to Mobile from Maine expecting to make his fortune in river traffic and land, bet a group of 'northern gentlemen' $100,000 that it was indeed possible to import Africans to America despite the heightened security on the Coast. Meaher hired Captain William Foster to build the Clotilde in Mobile and to run the ship. The ship, it is said, was 'light and commodious of that graceful turn which confers assurance that she will prove a fast sailor.' ('Africatown')The Clotilde is believed to have been a 2-masted schooner, 86 feet long and 23 feet wide, it is believed to have had a copper hull. ('Clotilda') Meaher learned through word of mouth that West African Tribes were fighting at the time and that the King of Dahomey was willing to trade Africans for $50-60 per person at Whydah, Dahomey. Counting on this bargain, Foster shipped out to Africa, arriving in Whydah on May 15, 1859. ('Bet') He selected 116 Africans from several different tribes and headed back to Mobile.
The cargo on the Clotilde consisted of Tarkar prisoners of war who were being held in Dahomey, some Africans from Dahmomey, and others from different tribes. The crossing to Mobile took 70 days, after the slaves were kept in the hold for 13 days. To avoid detection, the ship anchored at the Mississippi Sound, and Foster rode a horse to tell Meaher that the ship had returned. Meanwhile, the bewildered Africans were forced to hide from the law. One African reported that while hidden in the woods, they heard an elephant's trumpet from a passing circus troop and wept for their homeland. ('Africatown')
To further avoid detection, the Clotilde was burned, and sunk in local waters. Meaher retained 30 of the Africans for himself, while Foster took 6; the remaining 80 were split between Selma and positions on the Byrne Meaher Plantation in Wilcox. The 30 slaves whom Meaher kept were the original settlers of Africatown. ('Bet')
The Africans, once in the area, found themselves in 'limbo.' They could not legally be enslaved, yet they had neither homes, nor property. These Africans eventually settled in Magazine Point, Alabama in a city which they named Africatown. At this location, the women harnessed their agricultural skills to raise crops and sell them. Men worked in mills for $1 a day; eventually using the money earned to buy the land for themselves. ('Africatown') They established Africatown at this location.
Kazoola, 'Cudjo Lewis,' (pictured at right) was the last surviving African from the Clotilde. He became a very important figure in the history of Africatown. Cudjo's great granddaughter, Martha West Davis, remembers the frequent visits by interviewers which often occupied her great-grandfather's time before his death in 1935. Cudjo told the story of how he was captured by warriors from neighboring Dahomey and how he was taken to Whydah and thrown into a slave compound. He was sold by the King of Dahomey to William Foster. Cudjo, along with 30 others, became the property of Meaher. Within 2 years of his enslavement, the Civil War began; in another 4 years, it was over. As a freed slave after the War, Cudjo and the others established a town of their own. They adopted their own rule keepers, and - having been Christianized before their emancipation - they established the African Church. Cudjo reported the rules of Africatown as being: "Tell the truth, do not steal, do not commit adultery - though men were polygamists, punish murderers with death." ('Africatown')
Timothy Meaher's obituary sheds still more light on the enigmatic figure who defied the law, and kidnapped 116 Africans merely to settle a bet. Meaher was born in Whitfield, Maine on September 22, 1812; he came to Mobile in 1836. Meaher built Mobile's first steamboat, the William G. Jones, Jr. He landed 1,700,000 bales of cotton in Mobile, and also built a large sawmill. ('Meaher')
Slavery took hold quickly in Mobile, and as a port city, it quickly grew to a position of importance in Alabama slavery. Mobile was the largest slave trade center in the state.
State censuses from the 19th century lend greater understanding about the slave population in Alabama at the time.
Census Date State Population White Population African American Population Slaves Free Blacks 1830 309,527 190,406 119,121 117,549 1,527 1840 590,756 335,185 255,571 253,352 2,039 1850 771,623 426,514 345,109 342,844 2,265 1860 964,201 526,271 437,770 435,080 2,690
(Alabama Department of Archives)
These figures lead to interesting conclusions about the status of Africans in Alabama. Over this time span, the percentage of Africans in the State population was constantly increasing, and the percentage of free blacks constantly decreased.
Year Africans (percent of State Population) Free Blacks (percent of State Population) 1830 38% 1.33% 1840 43% .8% 1850 44% .659% 1860 45% .618%
Cotton dominated Alabama's economy. The largest cash crop in the state was Mexican or Green seed cotton, which thrived in the red clay soil and rolling hills of Alabama's geography. However, the sticky seed made removal of the seed by hand slower and more difficult. (Rogers, 95) The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 gave new life to human bondage in the South.
Mobile's prosperity as a city depended largely on the economic success provided by the cultivation of cotton. This prosperity was mirrored in city improvements, and, as is apparent, in the growth of the slave trade in the city. The production of cotton grew steadily along with the rising number of slaves coming into the city.
In 1830, cotton exported exceeded 100,000 bales.
In 1837, cotton exported exceeded 300,000 bales.
In 1840, cotton exported exceeded 450,000 bales. (Powell, 359)
The shipbuilding industry was also a source of revenue in the area, but the business of cotton production and exportation was the main source of revenue for the city. The Mobile port suffered under the disadvantage of a shallow harbor, but despite this minor inconvenience, the Port of Mobile prospered, thriving on the work of those enslaved in the area. (Olmstead, 547)
The average large planter in Alabama owned 10-20 slaves, but plantations employing over 50 slaves were not at all uncommon. (Olmstead, 575) The largest socio-economic group in the state consisted of yeoman farmers who lived in log houses, and employed only a handful of slaves or none at all. (Sellers, 19)
There seemed to be a basic understanding and acceptance that slavery could not exist without laws and regulatory codes. For this reason, the French Code Noir was extended into Mobile as the guideline for laws and conditions of slavery in the area. The French code was replaced when the port became part of the Mississippi Territory. A unique slave code was drafted for the area at this time. The 1852 Alabama Code held most of the laws concerning Alabama slavery, the rest were introduced through judicial interpretation.
Many passages of this Code stand in glaring juxtaposition to one another. One confirms a slave's status as property; another acknowledges his or her status as a person. Slaves did have some protection under the Alabama Code such as a right to trial by jury in capital cases, and the right to a court appointed attorney. The Code required that the slaves be treated 'with humanity.'
All in all, the Alabama Code defined slavery as a catalog of rights deprived. Slaves could not enter into contracts, lend money, rent any living quarters, own horses or dogs or any real property. The list goes on and on defining not so much what a slave could do, rather focusing on a long list of things taboo. In general, Alabama law treated slaves as property rather than persons with Civil Rights. However, the law did give slaves criminal status and listed crimes along with detailed punishments for offenders. (Rogers, 107-108)
Persisting under such a fundamentally wrong system, in conjunction with the obviously unfair slave code, the question of slave revolt comes up very naturally. However, there have been no reports of serious slave insurrections in the Mobile area. There is only one mention of a slave insurrection in the history of the entire state of Alabama. In 1861, an insurrection plot was discovered in Alabama by means of torture. Confessions extricated from the organizers said that slaves believed Lincoln would free them when he was elected and the slaves pled that they were merely preparing to aid him when he made his appearance. (Dillon, 240)
In 1840, the Whigs allegedly made promises to slaves that they would be free "when William Henry Harrison became president." (Dillon, 188) Though the testimony of Georgia slaves, which revealed this promise, has often been called into question, the fact that Alabama slaves made a similar claim lends substance to both stories.
Yet after the numbers, and names, and dates, one very real question persists. What was it like to be a slave in Mobile?
Descriptions culled from the WPA narratives present a unified impression of slave life in Alabama. Cabins were generally a one room or plank structure in which five or six slaves lived. These cabins seem strikingly similar to the first crude homes of white pioneers. Ex-slaves describe their clothing as having been made by a form of woven cotton called osnaburg. Shoes provided were extremely uncomfortable; rubbing blisters in the slaves' feet and rarely becoming softened until they were worn out. These shoes were called 'Jackson ties' or 'red russets.' Slaves seem to concur that since they were a valuable commodity, they received prompt, albeit primitive, medical attention. Whipping was a common form of punishment and work incentive in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (Hamilton, 60-65)
The happiest moments in Alabama slavery were Christmas, corn shuckings, hog killing time, Saturday nights, and slave weddings. Owners who feared that literacy would lead slaves to contemplate the ideal of freedom forbade education.
Divided very distinctly between slave and master, but bound by the intimacy of plantation life, blacks and whites developed many close ties. Eugene D. Genovese, author of Roll, Jordan, Roll, noted that there were "deep and intimate friendships, if such a word may be applied to so unequal a relationship." (Genovese, 348) The striking contradiction between friendship and a position of servitude, however, has caused historians to phrase their conclusions about slave-master relationships with excessive caution. Both cruelty and affection ran rampant on southern plantations. Genovese has described the Big House as a "tangled web of fondness and hatred, interracial attachments and intolerance, extraordinary kindness and uncontrollable violence." (Genovese, 348)
The autobiography of John P. Walker (pictured at right), a slave born in Norfolk, Virginia, who was led to Mobile in chains, describes one such relationship. His owner, a kindhearted doctor, allowed his two teenage boys to teach Walker to read and write. Walker was sent as the boys' companion to Yale, but it proved too dangerous. Upon his return to Mobile, the doctor arranged for Walker to become an apprentice to a plasterer. Seeing the plasterer's wife beating a helpless slave woman, he defended the slave and was forced to leave town never again to see his master. (Parker, 25-35) However, the amiable relationship between the two is apparent in Walker's story and in the way he describes his master in his autobiography.
The basic dynamics of the plantation community, perhaps more than any one factor, shaped the lifestyle of Alabama slaves. The majority of Alabama slave owners were small yeoman farmers with small estates or none at all, owning few slaves or none. Some wealthy planters owned estates palatial in comparison to these yeoman (pictured at left), but few had the glorious plantations of popular belief. The typical Alabama plantation had Negro quarters, out-houses, sawmills, grist mills, smoke houses, gin houses, and barns grouped in the back of the estate so as not to mar the aesthetic beauty.
Inventories and appraisals of estates round out the picture of plantation life. The most frequently mentioned assets include: horse wagons, ox wagons, bull-tongue plows, sweeps, harnesses, hoes, spades, shovels, axes, chains, grindstones, scythes and cradels, saw gins, wedges, fan mills, marking plates, dry hides, green hides, and sugar saws - instruments still used in cotton cultivation to this day. (Sellers, 25)
The total value of personal property in Alabama in 1860 was $556,725,646. The average large planter owned $96,245 in personal property. Large Planters were extremely wealthy, owning 30% of the state's slaves, 30% of the real estate, and 27% of personal property. All in all, large planters enjoyed 28.1% of the total wealth in Alabama. They were 18 X as wealthy as an average Alabamian; and 38X as wealthy as the average American. These planters, few in number, held economic powers greatly disproportionate to their numbers. (Sellers, 42) The drafting of the slave system in Alabama, as well as the defense of the system against the slander of abolitionists, fell on their shoulders.
No one on the plantation had a more important role than the overseer. He was a man without a country, unable to fraternize with either the slaves or the master. He was the chief object of the slave's hatred. The best overseers treated slaves with compassion and understood the benefits of equal measures of reward and discipline. The qualities needed in a good overseer included honesty, sobriety, knowledge of the business, and understanding of the management of slaves. On a good plantation, the number of slaves increased steadily, there was abundant food for all, land constantly improved, and all equipment was in good condition by Christmastime, it was the overseer's job to tend to all of this. Another very important job for the overseer was the assignment of jobs to each slave. This required skill in organization as well as intimate knowledge of each slave, his skills, his virtues, and his faults. The overseer strove to place each slave in the work he would do best and most willingly. (Sellers, 44)) On a large plantation, this was highly specialized.
Two basic systems existed for the organization of slave labor, the 'canebrake system' and the 'task system.' Canebrake thrived on work by many slaves. The overseer kept order and forced speed. Ploughmen went with the speed of the mules, but the hoe squad moved like a machine with as much speed and precision as humanly possible. As a general rule, men plowed, women hoed, children used light hoes in separate fields under the supervision of a woman. The task system was a very different arrangement of work. Every slave had a specific task for each day. Work began at a set time on each working day, and each slave worked at his own pace. They were not allowed to stop until the task was done and inspected. Work was divided for physical capabilities. Children were started out as quarter hands, moved to half hands, three-quarter hands, and finally were considered full workers. (Sellers, 66)
Cultivation of crops was the main work of the plantation, but not the only work done. Many slaves developed skills as artisans or mechanics to keep the buildings and machines in repair. Many had jobs in home manufacturing, weaving cloth and making shoes. (Sellers, 71)
House servants were at the top of the slave hierarchy. They ate the food of the master's table, had good and fashionable clothing, and spoke proper English. They were afforded the ability to listen in silence and profit from what they overheard. These slaves felt themselves superior to field hands, even to the overseer (Sellers, 74), and often enjoyed their jobs very much. Charity Anderson (pictured at left), a house servant in the area, spoke highly of her time as a house servant when interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project. "I kin remember de days when I was one of de house servants. Dere was six of us in de ol' marster's house, me, Sarai, Lou, Hester, Jerry and Joe. Us didn't know nothin' but good times den. My job was lookin' a'ter de corner table whar nothin' but de desserts sat. Jo and Jerry were de table boys, and dey ne'ber touched nothin' wid dere hans', dey used de waiter to pass things wid. My! dem was good ol' days." (Prine)
Shelter for slaves was a very important issue. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Jerald and Wife v. Bunkley that "not only common prudence, but common humanity" demanded of the master that he should provide suitable homes for the slaves. (Sellers, 83)The planter built homes on his plantation as he saw fit. Slave Quarters were simple and utilitarian, but most houses in Alabama were similar to this at the time. Slave cabins usually improved when the master's house did. They were furnished with chairs, stools, and beds. Beds were rectangular, built into the wall and measuring 5'X7'. The slaves slept on either straw or husk mattresses.
The cost of keeping a slave in Alabama averaged to $35.00 a year.
Clothing $ 3.20 Sugar and Coffee when Sick $ 2.00 Hat and Shoes $ 2.00 Doctor Bills $ 2.50 Taxes $ 1.00 Food (average: 6.5 cents a day) $ 24.30 Total $ 35.00
Daily provisions for slaves were meager. Bread and bacon were the staples. Many masters tried to make their plantations self-sufficient by raising corn and hogs. Most slaves counted on a peck of cornmeal and 3 or 4 pounds of meat as rations for the week. Some masters allowed slaves to raise and sell vegetables and poultry or even cotton and corn. The slaves were allowed to sell these to buy coffee, sugar, tea, and other supplies. Some masters issued molasses to slaves regularly.
The clothing with which slaves were provided was designed to be suitable for long, hard wear and for protection from the elements. Shoes, blankets, and material for jackets and pants were the most necessary articles in a slave's wardrobe. Some planters had their own shoe makers, and others purchased shoes at market. Common materials used were cotton, osnaburg, jeans, kersey, gingham, and linen. The state supply of cotton was produced in Mobile. Ads for runaway slaves illustrate what the most common articles of clothing worn were. In each such documentation, coats, hats, and pantaloons were described. (Sellers, 105)
Medical care for slaves was a very practical concern for masters. Home remedies were often used for minor illnesses because doctors were too far away to call for anything relatively trivial. Often the plantation mistress or one slave in particular was chosen as medical caregiver. Castor oil, Colomel, guinine and laudanum were common remedies. (Sellers, 115)
Slaves usually attended the same Sunday services as their master. They were then allowed to spend the rest of the day with friends. Whites not only attended the services because they feared the rise of another Nat Turner, but also because of a real friendship they developed with the slaves.
Holidays were termed 'Gala Days.' On these days, slaves and masters associated freely in a common spirit of friendship and joy. Gifts were exchanged and race distinctions were all but forgotten. An example of such a day was a slave wedding. While these unions enjoyed no legal status, masters usually respected the choices and helped to accommodate as well as celebrate the occasion. Most masters encouraged slaves to marry within the plantation, but some 'abroad' marriages were permitted. (Sellers, 125)
Children on a plantation were especially cherished. Slave and free children were brought up together for the initial years of the child's life. Bonds of affection formed in childhood often followed through to adulthood. Close bonds of tenderness were often cultivated in these formative years. Black children often held affection for the master or mistress; white children often clung to their black 'mammies' whom they were closer to, in many ways, than their own mothers. (Sellers, 129)
Death on a plantation cast a shadow over the entire plantation whether it occurred in the slave cabins or the big house. One can find instances of masters lamenting over the death of slaves, or slaves mourning the passing of a master or mistress. (Sellers, 130)
The life of Africans in Mobile extended beyond slave quarters. Mobile, as a port city with many employment opportunities, became an important haven for free blacks.
Mobile led the state in free blacks, holding 1/3 of the free population in 1840 and nearly ½ of the population by 1860. The city held distinct advantages and unique possibilities for the Free Negro. Direct limitations were imposed on these freedmen in the General Assembly of 1822. Free blacks were prohibited from : owning taverns, buying or selling slaves without permission, and preaching to an audience of more than five slaves without the presence of their legal owner. Numerous precautions, such as the ban on preaching, were passed into law to prevent contact between slaves and free blacks which whites felt might lead to an insurrection. The Anti-Immigration Act of 1832 prohibited free Negroes from other states from coming into Alabama. The Seizure Act made it legal to seize and enslave for life any free Negro who had entered the state since February 1832. However, the free population in Mobile was substantial, making the city a popular destination for runaway slaves. (Sellers, 363)
Many slaves were freed because their blood lines crossed those of the master. Because of this, the number of free mulattos greatly outnumbered free blacks. This is illustrated in Dorman Lewey's study of free blacks in Alabama. The results of this study are listed below.
Lewey's Study of Free Blacks in Alabama before 1865
Free Blacks Free Mulattos Males 292 962 Females 300 1136
As is illustrated by Lewey's findings, women were often freed more readily than men.
It was not uncommon for Free Negroes in Mobile to hold slaves of their own. Many of the freed slaves were also employed as laborers, carpenters, boatmen, bricklayers, cigar manufacturers, farmers, or painters. (Sellers, 386)
From 1721 to 1859, Africans entered Mobile in the chains of bondage. As a testament to the strength of their character, these Africans formed their own culture and traditions while still burdened under these chains, proving that the even rigors of bondage can never tame the human spirit. Slave community is observed in the forming of Africatown around the African Church. It is a culture steeped in cultural transfussions, and seasoned with a distinctly Southern flavor.
The history of slavery in the City of Mobile has often been hidden. It is commonly overlooked in historical sketches of the area, and is often misunderstood or ignored by the inhabitants of Mobile. Yet slavery was a very important part of the history of the city, and Mobile was a prominent player in the Alabama slave trade. By covering up the existence of slavery, there is the very real danger of losing the value of the rich slave culture of the time. Mobile has risen like a phoenix from the ashes from her sordid past as a dynamic player in the slave trade, but the reality of that activity can no longer be ignored. To do so is not only to belittle the struggle of Africans in the area, it is the compromise true understanding of the city itself.