From the earliest years of European colonization to the present day, Africans and their descendants in the United States and elsewhere in the West have been under pressure to assimilate themselves into the dominant culture.
In the first few centuries of forced migration through enslavement, they were coerced to speak English or another European language instead of their mother tongues.
They were also compelled to abandon or disguise their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices (including Islam for some), and answer to European first and last names.
In the past 150+ years since the abolition of American slavery, two social “experiments” stand out as attempts to preserve some aspect of the cultures that were taken away.
Africatown (Alabama), established in 1865
For two centuries, United States port cities accepted ships of enslaved people primarily from Senegambia, West Central Africa between Gabon and Angola, the Bight of Biafra (Nigeria, Cameroon) and the Gold Coast (which included Ghana, Togo and part of Benin). Many of them were taken off the ships and sold to random slaveholders, never seeing each other again.
Things were different for the 110 Africans on board the Clotilda, which arrived in Alabama in 1860, more than 50 years after the importation of Africans had been outlawed.
After being bought and snuck into the USA on a bet, many of them were sold to planters near each other. When slavery was abolished after the American Civil War, and their slaveholder refused to send them back to Africa, 32 of of the original 110 saved their small earnings and bought land together in a town called Plateau, a few miles from Mobile.
They named their new home Africatown. The original residents built simple homes and established Union Missionary Baptist Church and the Africatown cemetery, which are now preserved as historical sites and included on Mobile’s African-American heritage trail. They also opened a school, which became the first public school for Blacks in the state of Alabama.
According to Africatown resident and historian Maj. Joe Womack, “They didn’t know much about American law, but they knew about the … tribal laws where they came from. So the laws that they set up were based upon the tribe back in Africa, which made them the first community in this country of freed slaves in which the laws resembled the laws of a tribe back in Africa.”
In front of the church stands a bust of Africatown’s most famous original resident, Cudjo Lewis. Known as Kossola before he was taken captive, he was interviewed by novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1927.
Kossola’s memories of being captured and held in Dahomey, as well as, his experiences as a slave in the United States, were finally shared with the public in 2018 with the publication of Hurston’s book Barracoon. A bust of Kossola is on display in front of the church.
Kossola acted as a spokesman for the community, which in the early years kept to itself and tried to avoid contact with whites. No doubt they had been traumatized by their treatment at the tail end of American slavery.
In the mid-20th century, as paper mills and shipyards attracted workers to the area, Africatown became part of Mobile and its population swelled above 10,000 residents.
As was the case with many small towns, the loss of industry in the 1970s caused the population to dwindle once again to its current size of a couple thousand residents. When corporations returned in the early 21st century, they often brought toxic pollution that threatened the health of local residents.
In recent years, descendants of Africatown have forged a partnership with the government of Benin. Their goal is to use the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to stimulate trade and economic development that will benefit residents in both locations.
Advocates for Africatown have also created a federally recognized historic preservation district and a community development corporation to stimulate growth and preservation of the area.
They hope to complete the unfinished welcome center and build a museum that tells the story of the Black experience and brings an influx of tourism to help keep the town alive.
Oyotunji Village (South Carolina), established 1970
Fast forward 105 years since Africatown was founded. African Americans had fought (mostly using nonviolent tactics) to make the government uphold their Constitutional or “civil” rights, protect them from racist terrorism, and dismantle Jim Crow segregation – America’s form of apartheid.
All this was happening around the same time as African countries were gaining independence from their European colonizers. The result was a resurgence of Black American interest in Africa, pride in Blackness, and exploration of African cultures and religions.
At the height of this cultural renaissance, a Detroit native named Walter Eugene King founded a village in rural South Carolina. He had begun to study New World African religions as a young man even before the Civil Rights movement began.
He travelled to Haiti with Katherine Dunham in his 20s and became the first African American initiate in the Cuban-based Lucumi (also known as Ocha or Santeria) religion in 1959.
Upon returning to the United States, he founded several spiritual houses in New York until he secured land to construct the village as an “intentional community” in 1970.
He named it Oyotunji, which means “Oyo has returned” – Oyo being a powerful kingdom in pre-colonial Yorubaland (now Nigeria).
Built on the site of a former rice plantation in Sheldon, Oyotunji is constructed in the style of a traditional Yoruba village, including two markets, a palace complex, and several shrines to the Orisha divinities of Yoruba traditional religion.
Oyotunji has its own flag and a coat of arms in keeping with its identity as a sovereign territory within the American landscape.
Two years after establishing the village, King was initiated in Nigeria and took on his new name, Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi and became the Oba (king) of Oyotunji Village. Then in 1981, the reigning Ooni (paramount king) of Ile-Ife in Nigeria had him crowned as the king of Yoruba people in North America.
At the height of its popularity in the 1970s, the village was home to some 200 families and included a school and small scale industry to support the residents.
It also attracted a lot of attention, both positive and negative, owing to widespread skepticism and fear regarding traditional African religions, especially “voodoo” (which is what some uninformed people call just about any African religion).
On the positive side, Oyotunji was featured in a five-page spread in Ebony magazine that no doubt increased interest among visitors and potential residents. On the negative side, it was included in an online list of Weirdest Places in South Carolina.
Over time, many of those who grew up at Oyotunji have moved away seeking economic opportunity or a different way of life unavailable in the village setting. This includes the reigning Oba Adefunmi II, who returned from Florida after his father’s death in 2005 to become Oyotunji’s reigning Oba.
Today, a handful of families reside at Oyotunji in the surrounding region in cabin style housing. “We’re not a cult,” says Opade Kiniun, confidante to the current king and Oyotunji’s Western liaison.
“We don’t have any stringent rules that require you to be here. You can come and go as you please. We also have families in the surrounding area, Beaufort and Sheldon.” At any given time there can be between 2 and 120 families.”
Former residents and other visitors can rent rather than make the dark journey down Highway 17. Things liven up considerably during the various Orisha and ancestor festivals that Oyotunji hosts throughout the year.
The village also continues to give tours for individuals and groups curious about its unique way of life, while its king, current and former residents and initiates make educational presentations in numerous locations as requested.
Tragedy struck Oyotunji in September 2018 when the Oyo horseman and a shrine dedicated to Shango (the Orisha associated with thunder, lightning, drumming and dancing) burned in an early morning fire.
Donations from people around the world helped support the rebuilding effort which is currently underway and is hoped to be completed by 2020 when the village will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
With another resurgence of interest in African culture underway among the current “woke” generation, it will be interesting to see if Oyotunji returns to its earlier level of daily community participation in its next 50 years. This video, shot on location at Oyotunji, suggests that perhaps it will.