At lunchtime in Mobile in 1997, something shifts. A twist in understanding, a new turn in perception—it throws my understanding of the South off balance.
There’s a version of American history that we all learned in school: before it was a nation, the slipshod collection of English colonies began in New England and Virginia, and then gradually spread west and south. America was a porous, fibrous sheet of paper, the first settlements like inkblots that slowly bled out towards the edges of the blank white page. Expansion moved right to left: first Georgia, then Alabama, then Mississippi, and so on.
But Mobile is a whole new inkblot.
The first clue that there’s something different about it is in the way you say its name. If it were in Italy, it would be pronounced MO-bee-lay, in Georgia MOW-bile, and anywhere else just like the phones, to rhyme with “global,” which is how I imagine it sounds in the mouths of the few Idahoans or Canadians who come here. But the French pronunciation lingers on, a trace of an alternative origin story.
At lunchtime, dozens of locals cross Cathedral Square for a midday mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The building is huge: the six Doric columns on the portico are more what you’d expect from a Federal Building than a church, but twin gold-domed towers on either side give it away. The Basilica is assertive in a way that Catholic churches in the South usually aren’t. It is grand, confident, and—in the middle of the day in August—packed.
Everywhere in the South you regularly encounter the visual idiom of Southern Protestantism: wreathed and silk-flowered roadside crosses marking the sites of fatal road accidents, mostly un-steepled one-room white clapboard church buildings punctuating the roadsides with regular judgment and occasional grace, tacked up on telephone poles, hand-scrawled signs exhorting the wayfarer to PREPARE TO MEET GOD. If you ask a New Yorker or a German—or even an Alabamian, for that matter—to sketch the religious landscape of the state, they might give you something like this.
But Mobile is more crucifix than bare cross, more Martin of Tours than Martin Luther. Catholicism is front-and-center here, and is written into the cityscape. Streets are named for Saints Francis, Louis, Michael, Anthony, and the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral bell marks the time according to a different, more ancient order that has roots here older than Alabama, older even than Protestantism. The Spaniards named the bay for the Holy Spirit on the Waldseemüller Map, printed in 1507. It is old, but not as old as the native tribes who have been mostly displaced from here, who still lend their names to counties in the region. Nor is the Basilica a dead monument, but—to judge at least by its appearance at lunchtime in 1997—home to a living tradition.
The current Cathedral Basilica was built in 1850, but the parish was established in 1703, by Jean-Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrière de St. Vallier, the bishop of Quebec. And almost immediately, the parties began. That same year, Nicholas Langlois inaugurated the Mardi Gras celebrations that have been going on longer in Mobile than New Orleans. And Nicholas wasn’t the only member of the Langlois family to leave a lasting legacy to the spiritual life of Alabama. His son, Fifise, is alleged to have introduced in 1754 another object of religious devotion revered in virtually every Alabama home, regardless of denomination: rhododendron pentanthera. As in Rome the Basilica of St Peter was built on top of the bones of the Apostle to the Gentiles, in Alabama the Basilica is built on top of the holy relics of the great missionary Apostle of the Azalea.
A few blocks away, the azaleas in Bienville Square—maybe distant descendants of Fifse’s, but probably not—have long lost their blooms, and the park is shrouded in thick shade of arching live oaks. In the center of the square, local physician George Ketchum, who lobbied to bring fresh drinking water to Mobile, is memorialized by a five-tiered fountain that you are not supposed to drink from.
Catholic tradition is strong here but Mobile is still Alabama, and the old-time religion of the rest of the state is never far-off. By the Ketchum fountain, a clean-shaven white man in crimson polo shirt, almost-white jeans, and sneakers, clutches a Bible in his right hand. With his left index finger he jabs at something or someone, possibly the woman with a leather purse and hospital ID card attached to her waist, lit cigarette casually perched in her right hand. Looking only at the ground in front of her feet, and paying the park-preacher no mind, she seems to project a uniquely Southern Catholic indifference to Proddy hellfire.
On cast iron benches lining the walkways that fan out from the fountain, African-American and white men linger in dappled shade. One has his shoes off. They are only slightly less indifferent to the preacher, who is pointing to the sky and declaiming loudly about debauchery or the waywardness of the age or something. To the men on the benches, he is not especially compelling entertainment.
North of here runs a major thoroughfare that, according to The WPA Guide to Alabama, “is for the Negroes of Mobile what Eighteenth Street is to Birmingham,” i.e., a thriving African-American business district. And then, without a wisp of irony, the Guide notes that the street is named for “President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy.” In a characteristically condescending tone, the Guide describes the street-scene:
Department stores, specialty shops, motion picture houses, Pike Hall, a social center, drugstores, offices, and even a wholesale establishment or two cater to the Negro population on a scale and with prices to which their limited economy is adjusted.
Davis Avenue was known locally as “The Avenue,” for obvious reasons. African-Americans could do without a daily reference to Jeff Davis, a regular reminder that however successful and thriving their businesses along The Avenue might be, they were still on the white man’s turf, on his terms, on his street. (The Avenue was eventually renamed—not at all formalistically—for Martin Luther King, Jr.)
We hit the road south out of Mobile on the west side of the Bay for Dauphin Island. We are led here by the WPA Guide, which tells us that it was originally called Massacre Island when the French landed on it in 1699. They found sun-bleached bones all over the place, which led them to think some horrible slaughter had taken place there (always thinking the worst, the French). They built an installation there anyway, because a few hundred corpses and the ghosts of a massacre should never get in the way of an advantageously-situated military garrison. Either way, they were mistaken: Massacre Island was in fact an ancient burial site that had been turned up by a hurricane, which strewed the newly unburied across the sands. Despite the appealingly forbidding name, it was changed to honor the heir of Louis XIV, the dauphin who would become Louis XV.
The far less intimidatingly named Dauphin Island changed hands many times, and the English built a fortress on the end of the island in 1822 to guard the entrance to Mobile Bay. It was last held by the Confederacy until August 8, 1864.
Dauphin Island is one of two pincer-like formations on either side of the entrance to Mobile Bay, each one tipped with nineteenth-century pentagonal brick fortresses—Fort Gaines on the west side, Fort Morgan on the east—that now guard little more than the memory of Mobile’s strategic location. Between these pincer-points, under cover of night in July 1860, a small steam ship crept into Mobile Bay. In tow: a twin-masted, copper-hulled schooner named for a fifth-century Frankish saint venerated as patroness of brides, sons, and exiles. Sails and part of its foremast removed, The Clotilda was traveling incognito to avoid both capture by pursuing Portuguese Man-of-Wars and a run-in with Federal authorities. Sneaking past Dauphin Island, the ship’s captain, William Foster of Mobile, was fidgety, anxious to avoid being caught importing illegal contraband into the United States. Chained and silent below deck on the Clotilda: over a hundred West Africans to be sold into slavery.
The United States had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, and if Foster was caught he could be hanged just like Nathaniel Gordon of Maine, who would later be caught doing the same thing. Foster landed the Clotilda on Twelve Mile Island north of Mobile. “I transferred my slaves to a river steamboat,” he wrote, “and sent them up into the canebrake to hide them until further disposal. I then burned my Sch[ooner] to the water’s edge and sunk her.”
The Clotilda was the last known slave ship to enter the United States. Foster was caught, but unlike Nathaniel Gordon, he never faced more than a slap on the hand. Thirty-two of the men that he bought from the King of Dahomey (present-day Benin) were sold to Timothy Meaher, Foster’s business partner. After the end of the Civil War, the enslaved men and women on Meaher’s plantation began their own settlement just north of Mobile, which became known as Africatown.
Africatown is the fruit of African-American resilience and self-determination, but also of a white man’s hubris: Foster’s entire venture to smuggle African slaves into the United States in contravention of federal law arose out of a bet between Foster and Meaher and a group of New Englanders who didn’t think that they could pull it off. A plot hatched in the smoky haze of some Alabama alehouse, perhaps, ended up trading in the lives of over a hundred human beings. The irony is that Foster’s wager led to consequences neither he nor Meaher could ever have imagined: the establishment of a colony of free black families in the heart of Mobile. Nor could they have imagined that one day a granddaughter of enslaved people would come out of Alabama a celebrated American novelist. They could not have imagined Zora Neale Hurston, who would tell the story of the survivors of The Clotilda based upon her 1927 interviews with the last remaining survivor of the ship, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, in a book that would finally be published in 2018, almost sixty years after its author’s death.
A whole new inkblot, but in familiar colors.