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‘We all worked for this, and so we’re all owners:’ interview with Africatown redevelopment head

Written by: Margaret Kates | Published by on November 21, 2022

man with microphone speaks behind a podium
Karlos Finley, a local attorney and municipal court judge, speaks in front of a Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail van. Finley was recently appointed the first-ever executive director of the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation.

Karlos Finley is a local attorney and judge in Mobile. A native of Mobile, Finley is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and serves as the President of the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail. Earlier this month, he was named the new executive director of the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, a public corporation established last year to revitalize the neighborhood.

Here, we discuss his love for historic preservation, his roots in Africatown and the importance of the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation.

Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why do you do what you do?

Kind of a family tradition, actually. So, my great grand-uncle formed a college in Tennessee, called Swift Memorial College, and he was the first African American to graduate from college in the history of the state of Tennessee. So, understanding and knowing that we don’t gain this knowledge just to keep it to ourselves, we gain it so that we can spread it and so that we can create opportunity for others. After him, his nephew was taught the same thing, who happened to be my grandfather. So, you’ve heard of Franklin Primary Health clinics here in Mobile, I take it?

Yes, I have.

Well, Dr. James A. Franklin was my mother’s father. He was a Depression-era doctor when no one had money, but he would barter for his services. And in doing such, he was re-paid, ultimately, by attaining a pretty good degree of wealth here in Mobile. And he opened his home up to all famous African Americans who traveled through the city of Mobile during that era who could not stay in hotel rooms, because everything was segregated and there were no African American hotel rooms. You may have heard of the Green Book movie a few years back?

Yeah, I saw Green Book.

Well, his home was the home designated for famous people. So, people like Dorothy Dandridge, and Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson, and Jackie Robinson, and all of those people stayed at his home during that era of Jim Crow and segregation. My grandmother had the presence of mind to have a guestbook, and so all of those signatures are in a guestbook that’s at the History Museum of Mobile. So, that was another generation.

Then my father and mother came along. And my father opened the first African American chain of drugstores in the state of Alabama, and he was also a civil rights activist during the 60s and 70s, along with my mother, who was an educator. My mother was the first teacher to teach Black history in Mobile County Public School Systems. All of that kind of rolled into me and my brothers and sisters and cousins. So it’s become a family tradition, so to speak, almost like a family business.

When my sister Dora [Franklin Finley] created the African American Heritage Trail here in Mobile, in 2006 or 2007, we all began to contribute in this thing we call historic preservation. Because at the time, there were no organizations that were dedicated to telling the African American history and contributions here in the city of Mobile. And so, when Dora created that entity and began to unveil all of this hidden history, or unknown history, people were really amazed. So we then created a tour, and we became the first organization to have a formal tour to showcase significant African American contributions to the city of Mobile. Since that time, we’ve unveiled 45 historic markers throughout the city of Mobile, inclusive of three in Africatown. So that becomes a calling.

Unfortunately, our founder, Dora Finley, passed away in 2012. The city then posthumously named the trail in her honor, which is why it’s now called the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail. So I serve as the president of that organization, and in doing so, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter and interact with people from all over the world. Literally, all continents have been represented in taking a tour.

So, that’s the thirst. That’s the drive to preserve this history, because prior to her doing that, it was not done on a on a widespread effort. And what happens is you find out that African American history is just American history. And you come across how African Americans interacted with European Americans, and the fact that the first child ever baptized in the oldest church in Alabama, the Cathedral-Basilica, was a child of French and African descent. Dora had access to the records of the cathedral, which holds some of the oldest records along the Gulf Coast, not just in Alabama, but Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana. So when you start to understand the full picture of that history, knowledge becomes power. And you want to share that power, because it exposes the fact that we all contributed to this place we call Mobile, the state we call Alabama, in this country we call the United States. And it’s not that someone gave someone else something. We all worked for this, and so we’re all owners. And when one can feel ownership, one feels differently about their station in life.

So, to really root in Africatown, however, when my grandfather got here in 1919, it was his second medical practice that he opened. He had just run from Evergreen, Alabama, because he had healed a woman, a white woman, during the first pandemic of the Spanish Flu. No matter what your position was, a Black man could never touch a white woman, and he treated her as a physician. And the townspeople found out and they were going to kill him. So, the farmer whose wife it was hurried him, my grandmother and their two oldest children out of town, and the train fare ran out in Africatown.

So he opened his second practice in Africatown, and he treated not only the Clotilda Africans, but all of the citizens in Africatown because there were African Americans in Africatown, Plateau, Magazine Point before the Clotilda came. So that community is made up of not just African descendants from Clotilda, but African descendants from enslaved people who were here before Clotilda arrived. Then, in the 1960s, my father opened his fourth drugstore in the Happy Hill community of Africatown. That’s two generations of serving the people in this community. So now, I become the third generation to formally act in a position of service for this community. And so it’s very intense, it’s very passionate, it’s very meaningful. And it is very intentional.

Shifting to the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, what do you see as the ARC’s role in Africatown and in Mobile as a whole?

The ARC’s role is to create affordable housing, and to repair many of the homes that are currently there. There are some very nice homes in Africatown, the place is not just completely ramshackle. But there are many homes that also need some TLC, and there are vacant lots that create opportunities to increase the housing stock. So, our first priority is housing, and affordable housing in Africatown. And if you understand the city of Mobile, you understand that we have a shortage of affordable housing across the city. So that then in turn will improve that issue that we’re dealing with.

But there’s also infrastructural issues in Africatown that we want to work on, because we want it to be a thriving, sustainable community like any other in the city, like Church Street East, like Oakleigh, like Old Dauphin Way. There should not be a disparity. They need sidewalks and they need drainage ditches covered, just like every other community in our city. So that’s what we’ll be working toward, as well, that infrastructural piece.

Then, once we’ve got those things in place, we want to look at inviting some commercial businesses into Africatown. Africatown is a food desert, so we need grocery stores. We need drugstores, we need service stations. There’s going to be a lot of traffic coming over that Africatown Bridge in just a little while, when the construction on the bridge over the Mobile Bay begins, there’s going to be a lot of diverted traffic that way. So, we’re not going to look at that as something that’s bad, because every challenge is also an opportunity. So, if traffic is going to be picking up, well, let’s give them a reason to stop. Let’s give them a reason to fill up on gas. Let’s give them a reason to maybe stop at a restaurant, and all of those things are possible within this community. So, the ARC is designed to address all of those situations and to create opportunities out of the challenges that we have.

There are still many historic places within Africatown that have yet to be marked, so that’s also a piece. So, we’re in historic preservation, we’re in housing development, and we’re also in commercial development and infrastructure development. That’s what we do as the ARC.

This just came to mind as we were talking just now. You mentioned that there are historical markers missing, and the movie Descendant just came out on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. And I think there’s been a lot, the Heritage House in Africatown is opening soon. What role do you think that the movie, the Heritage House, the momentum around these pieces of media, the discovery of the Clotilda…How do you think that will impact Africatown?

It’s already impacting Africatown in a very positive and monumental way, because we must be realistic and clear. Had it not been for the discovery of Clotilda, which substantiated the story that many said was folklore, people would not be coming to Africatown or even thinking about. Let’s be clear, this discovery of Clotilda and the making of the film, Descendant…These things have a way of evolving. And so certainly the impact that the discovery of Clotilda, the making of Order of Myths [Margaret Brown’s earlier film on Mobile Mardi Gras], the marking of the Africatown historic locations and now, the filming of [Descendant] have had tremendous impacts on this history coming to life, and also the opportunities that they will present for the city of Mobile as a whole. Because we have many depressed neighborhoods and communities in our city, but the one that we’re redeveloping is Africatown, because of its uniqueness, because of its opportunity that it presents to the city of Mobile and the state of Alabama.

So you think that Africatown can serve as a model for, or maybe even some of the sort of residual effects of the redevelopment of Africatown could help the other depressed neighborhoods in Mobile?

I know that it can, but it will also help all neighborhoods in the city of Mobile, because revenue stream will serve everyone. I mean, [the Equal Justice Initiative] in Montgomery doesn’t just serve a certain neighborhood. The Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial serves the entire city, because revenue comes into the city and then it’s distributed. The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham doesn’t just serve Kelly Ingram Park and that area, it serves the entire city. So, this won’t be any different.

What do you think people in Mobile should know about the ARC?

What people in Mobile should know about the ARC is that our board is appointed by their elected officials. So there are two board members that are appointed by the mayor, two that are appointed by the city councilperson whose district did Africatown falls in, one appointed by the county commissioner, one appointed by the [state] house representative, one appointed by the state senator. And then, most uniquely, there are two board members that are appointed by two specific organizations, unique and connected with Africatown, made up of descendants and residents. So, the Clotilda Descendants Association and the Africatown Historic Preservation Foundation both appoint a member to our board, and that member must live in Africatown. So everyone is represented.

And one of the things that the ARC does, is we galvanize all of our individuals, all of our elected officials, all of our community into this organization. So, everyone knows what we’re doing. We have open meetings once a month on the first Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the Hope [Community] Center, right in the heart of Africatown. And we want to make sure that everyone gets that knowledge, so they can come, they can understand and know what’s going on in Africatown, know what it is that we’re doing, what kind of progress we’re making, and what help we need from them. Because many hands make for a lighter load. And we’re going to need as many hands as we can get.



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