Rebuilding Africatown | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Rebuilding Africatown


WORLD Radio - Rebuilding Africatown

An unlikely team restores dilapidated homes in one of America’s oldest African American towns

Crew from New York Sheetrocking assist with rebuilding. Photo Credit to Myrna Brown

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Thursday, April 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Rebuilding Africatown.

We first introduced you to the story of the historic Alabama town in 20-19: A group of West Africans formed the town, after being bought and transported against their will in 1860. The voyage was the last known illegal shipment of enslaved people to the United States.

BUTLER: Today, WORLD's Myrna Brown takes us back to Africatown, where an unlikely team is working to restore hearts and homes.


JUANITA RUFFIN: I am so grateful. I thank the Lord for letting them come out and do this.

MYRNA BROWN, CORRESPONDENT: Juanita Ruffin’s back yard looks and sounds like a construction zone. But the 63-year-old, silver-headed-grandma isn’t complaining.

CONSTRUCTION WORKER: Here’s some one by two’s in case you need them.

She smiles as she watches workers repair structural damage underneath the yellow, wood-frame house. It’s been her home since she was 12 years old.


Across the street, Ruffin’s neighbor is having water-logged sheetrock replaced. And a few houses down, new floors are being installed, all by complete strangers.

JUANITA RUFFIN: No, never seen them before. But they so friendly.


The unfamiliar, but spirited crew of volunteers are retired firefighters, law enforcement, and construction workers. All of them, like Ruffin, have been on the receiving end of compassion.

JAMES EARL: I was a lieutenant in Special Operations and we worked extensively at the World Trade Center after the attacks in 2001.

That's project manager, James Earl. He was a New York City firefighter during the 9-11 attacks.

EARL: And after we retired we wanted to give back some of the love that we’d been shown in our own catastrophe and we had people from all over the country come and help us out. So when we retired we said, we gotta keep doing this. And we’re still doing it.

Half of Earl’s crew is from New York. The other half, from Florida. In 2007, the nonprofit organization Heart 9-11 began deploying first responders and other volunteers to serve whenever and wherever the need arose.

EARL: We went to Ecuador after the earthquake. We went to Haiti after the earthquake. We went to Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. We built numerous homes for wounded veterans.

Today they’re helping to rebuild Ruffin’s hometown: Africatown. The historic community is north of Mobile, Alabama.

James Earl remembers reading about Africatown, the growth of the community in the 1950’s and its decline two decades later. But what captured his attention was the work one of his favorite Major League Baseball players was doing to rebuild the community.

EARL: I grew up in Queens, New York. Home of the 1969 World Champion New York Mets and one of the guys I watched run around left field was Cleon Jones.

After his baseball career ended, Cleon Jones returned to Africatown, his hometown. Residents like Juanita Ruffin were still there, but the Africatown Jones knew was now littered with vacant lots, abandoned businesses and dilapidated housing. That’s when he started The Last Out Community Foundation. In 20-22, James Earl reached out to Jones to see how Heart 9-11 could help.

EARL: And I said, that sounds like what we do, except he’s doing it in his neighborhood and we go to other neighborhoods.

80-year-old Jones gladly accepted Earl's invitation to help rebuild Africatown, even if it did come with the promise of a few signed autographs.


Former New York City Battalion Fire Chief Bo Bohack was one of the first to sign up for the Africatown rebuild. Today he’s pulling old sheetrock from a bedroom wall.

BO BOHACK: I’m here, serving my fellow man. Plus meeting a legend like Cleon, that kind of helps. That’s a draw, you know. Do you remember him. Oh yeah, he was one of my idols. Oh absolutely.

Fellow New Yorker and Carpenter Silkey Williams was right behind him.

SILKEY WILLIAMS: I never know anything about Africatown and I was very interested to find out what’s going on down here.

And Florida crew member James Breedlove says he shut down his Tampa construction company for the week to join the work in Africatown.

JAMES BREEDLOVE: This is the give back for all God has blessed us with, you know.

SOUND: [What time can they come.]

As Cleon Jones and James Earl make plans to finish restoring the rest of the homes on their list, Earl knows there’s so much more to be done.

EARL: I’ve fixed houses like this before and there is no finish line. Every piece of wood you take off, there’s two more behind it that’s broken.

But he says he’s thankful for all they've accomplished together.

EARL: I just laugh. Here’s a bunch of white boys from New York and some from Florida and we’re coming down here and working in a totally black area, with a very deep south slave ship history, which was amazing. I never heard of. There's more that unites us than divides us.

Leaning on her chain link fence and watching her new friends continue to work underneath her home, Juanita Ruffin agrees.

MYRNA TO JUANITA: Touches your heart doesn’t it? Yes, it do.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown in Africatown, Alabama.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...