The Africatown Cemetery Project

This spring and summer, CHARG is working with Dr. Alexandra Jones of Archaeology in the Community on a community project in Mobile, Alabama. The project is part of an ongoing effort to document the cemetery at Africatown, a unique community in Mobile that was founded by a group of formerly enslaved Africans who had been illegally smuggled on the ship the Clotilda from Africa in 1860 – over 50 years since the trans-atlantic slave trade was abolished. Many of these individuals were enslaved in and around Mobile, and came together after Emancipation to build their own community. Their descendants still live in the community today, and were recently featured in a Netflix documentary, Descendants, which was released this fall.

The bulk of the archaeological interest in Africatown has been centered on the slave ship the Clotilda, which had been sunk by the smugglers to hide the evidence. Recently, however, the location of the ship has been identified. However, some previous terrestrial archaeological investigations have been conducted by Dr. Neil Norman William and Mary, including some documentation of the historic portion of the community cemetery. Unfortunately, the project is incomplete, and Dr. Jones has been asked to complete the analysis, and to develop public programming with the Clotilda Descendants Association.

CHARG has been asked to work with the legacy GIS data that was collected by William and Mary, and to develop a mobile platform for the children of Africatown descendants to document the marker information at the cemetery. These tools will be used in a program in June for children, and will establish an opportunity for the community to participate in the documentation of the cemetery. Once recorded, this resource can be used as an interactive tool for restoration efforts, online exhibitions, research, and interpretation.

Initial Steps

The previous scholars collected a tremendous amount of data about the oldest portion of the cemetery. Unfortunately, it is not tied to real-world coordinates. While this was not necessary for the analysis they were conducting, it is important for developing a mobile, interactive recording system. This means that our first step is to visit Africatown to put in datums using our Emlid Reach RS2+ receivers, and collect a series of points that correspond to some of the burial markers recorded previously. This will allow us to reorient the original dataset into real world coordinates.

In the meantime, WFU Anthropology student Basia Scott has been working on developing a prototype of a marker recording app using ESRI AcGIS Survey123. We have been testing the recording system at the Odd Fellows Cemetery here in Winston- Salem, to ensure that what we will build for Africatown will work. Once we have the already recorded Africatown cemetery in position, and have consulted with the Clotilda Descendants Association to determine what information they want recorded, we will be able to construct a system to use in Africatown.

This is an incredible opportunity for CHARG and Wake Forest students to have the chance to work with the descendants of this remarkable community. We are grateful to Dr. Jones and the Clotilda Descendants Association for allowing us to participate.

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