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It's time to help boost Africatown, an important community near Senior Bowl's Mobile home

A banner promoting the Senior Bowl -- one of the pre-draft process' top events -- hangs at the intersection of Africatown Boulevard and Magazine Road in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Scott Pioli)
A banner promoting the Senior Bowl -- one of the pre-draft process' top events -- hangs at the intersection of Africatown Boulevard and Magazine Road in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Scott Pioli)

The Senior Bowl has called Mobile, Alabama, home for all but one of its 75 years of existence. It is the pre-draft season's largest and most celebrated college football all-star game, an annual affair that consistently brings together some of the NFL's brightest and most powerful people -- including representatives of the billion-dollar organizations that drive the country's biggest sport -- to watch top prospects.

I've been attending the event for the past 33 years -- but, to my deep regret, it wasn't until 2018 that I learned about a community located less than four miles north of where the Senior Bowl takes place called Africatown. The residents there have deep roots, surviving for well over a century despite facing the effects of racism and environmental injustice, and they deserve to have their story shared as widely as possible.

Africatown was founded shortly after slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. The community's founders were a group of enslaved West Africans who were taken there in 1860 -- decades after it became illegal to import enslaved people to the country -- on the Clotilda, a ship owned by Timothy Meaher. It was the last-known vessel to transport enslaved people to the United States. After emancipation, these formerly enslaved people wished to return to Africa, but they didn't have the means to make the journey, so they settled in the location that would come to be known as Africatown, establishing their own community and maintaining ties to their history. Today, less than 1,000 people live in the economically disadvantaged community -- there had been 12,000 in the 1960s -- and some of the descendants of the community's founders still call it home.

Many have told the story of Africatown over the years, including the former mayor of a neighboring town whose efforts to turn the area into a national park were rebuffed in the 1980s, but it wasn't until recently that the community truly (and rightfully) came into the national spotlight. In 2018, Zora Neale Hurston's book, Barracoon -- based on interviews with a survivor of the Clotilda -- was published, nearly 90 years after its completion. In 2019, it was confirmed that remains of the Clotilda, which was destroyed once the enslaved were brought ashore, had been found along the Mobile River. Three years later, *Descendant*, a renowned documentary film brilliantly directed by Mobile native Margaret Brown, was released. The film explores Africatown, including descendants of some of the last-known enslaved Africans who were aboard the Clotilda, bringing awareness to not only the community's past and present but also to the task of preserving its future.

In recent years, I have made a very conscious effort to better understand Africatown, studying its past while also getting to know the people who now call it home, often visiting when I am in the area and having meaningful, enlightening conversations with those willing to teach.

"This place is not about the ship or the name 'Africatown' -- it's about a community and real people," one member of the community told me.

Another said: "We finally have a complete generation that is no longer burdened by the fear of retribution for telling our story."

Cleon Jones, the former MLB All-Star outfielder who caught the last out when the 1969 "Miracle Mets" won the World Series, is one resident striving to revitalize the historic neighborhood where he grew up. Through his foundation, Jones is actively educating people unfamiliar with Africatown about what he called his "dying community" in 2020, while also putting in the work to restore it himself.

During my most recent visit to the area, I came across the intersection of Africatown Boulevard and Magazine Road, where a banner promoting the Senior Bowl was mounted on a streetlamp. I was struck by the stark contrast between the banner, which evokes the hopes and dreams that fueled many of us who have built lives in the NFL, and the reality of the underserved community in which it was placed.

In that heavy moment, a man on a lawnmower came into focus in the distance -- a man I would soon identify as Cleon Jones himself. Naturally, I approached him, and for more than an hour spoke with the former Mets star. (Jones had been one of my childhood heroes, introduced to me by my third grade teacher, Miss Elisa Cooper -- now Mrs. Jackson -- the first Black teacher in New York's Washingtonville Central School District.) Our conversation helped me understand the enormity of what Jones has committed his life to, but it also served as a reminder to do my part.

One of the most powerful quotes in Descendant is from Anderson Flen, a 1968 graduate of Mobile County Training School (MCTS). He served as quarterback of the 1966 MCTS state champion football team and co-captain of the undefeated 1968 baseball team.

"People come and they see, but what do they do?," Flen said. "The real test, a lot of times, is not in coming, it's, What do you do when you leave? Unfortunately, too many people say, 'I've been there.' The real question is, What did you do after you left?"

Since first learning about and visiting Africatown in 2018, I have asked scores of NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players, as well as those associated with the Senior Bowl, if they are at all familiar with that community or the Clotilda. And sadly, I can count on less than two hands the folks who have heard of either. It's disheartening, but it has also encouraged me to challenge those two entities that have helped shape my career -- the NFL and the Senior Bowl -- to use their incredible and wide-reaching platforms for a greater good, especially during that one week in late January/early February when they inhabit Mobile.

I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of Africatown. It is a community that was born out of a horrific chapter of American history, and it is a reminder of a gap that continues to exist in our country. The NFL and its players have done incredible work in communities across our nation, especially with the Inspire Change initiative, which is aimed at reducing barriers to opportunity, particularly in communities of color.

The NFL and Senior Bowl have created a world-class event. I can envision our league working to further acknowledge and serve this community, which is so close to the downtown of the city that the Senior Bowl has long promised to lift up.

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