Photograph by Costa Manos / Magnum Photos

In Search of Emancipation

For Juneteenth, Catherine Coleman Flowers draws links in The Frontline between the name of her beloved Lowndes County, Alabama, and the region’s history of slavery—and freedom.

Growing up in Lowndes County, Alabama, the ancestral lands of the Muscogee, I knew we were at the epicenter of history. It was where the Battle of Holy Ground was fought on Dec. 23, 1813, during the U.S. government’s war against the Creek Indians. Black and Indigenous peoples were forcibly moved from this area to Oklahoma as part of the Trail of Tears more than 15 years later. 

 

During the Civil Rights era, Lowndes County—which was and still is inhabited by descendants of enslaved people—became known for its residents’ fight for freedom and justice. Today, it is the poster child for poverty, structural racism, sanitation inequity, and environmental injustice. The war continues, but it’s taken a different form. As Black folks celebrate the end of slavery on Juneteenth, we must confront that history and the way it continues to bleed into our lives. We all leave behind a legacy—but whose legacy do we choose to honor? The present-day reality of Lowndes County can be tied back to the culmination of one family’s violence.

 

Some of the horror stories I heard from my parents about Jim Crow, lynchings, and families separated due to racial violence still haunt me today. My county, known for its many lynchings, earned the name “Bloody Lowndes.” 23andMe and Ancestry have verified that we share the bloodlines not only of our African ancestors, but also our former enslavers and Indigenous grandmothers. 

 

I often wonder how the state of Alabama can look away or blame residents for failing or nonexistent sanitation systems—direct indicators of poverty and environmental injustice. My thirst for answers led me to search deeper than what I could find in history books. I wanted to discover not only who I was—but how this place came to be. Why was there also a Lowndes County in Mississippi and in Georgia?

We all leave behind a legacy—but whose legacy do we choose to honor?

Scanning the history books and newspaper articles led me to Yarrow Mamout. He was an enslaved Fulani Muslim brought to North America in 1752. Some 44 years later, he bought his freedom. Mamout’s 1819 portrait by artist Charles Willson Peale hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a portrayal unlike the popular image of most enslaved people. But Mamout was unlike most enslaved people: he was educated and later a homeowner in Georgetown. 

 

One of his neighbors was Christopher Lowndes—the same man who helped enslave him and whose family name lives on in the South. 

 

Lowndes and his family had helped arrange Mamout’s forced voyage to the U.S. In fact, they transported over 9,600 enslaved people to the Americas over at least 24 years. They were one of the largest human traffickers in the United States. Lowndes held all sorts of powerful connections—from a son-in-law who was an aide to George Washington to a father-in-law who was a governor. The family business was built around exploiting humans.

 

Francis Lowndes, Christopher’s son, captained three ships. The descendants of his cousin settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where they got involved in politics. As former President Andrew Jackson rallied to remove Native Americans from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, Rep. William Lowndes of Charleston (one of those descendants) stood by him, even voicing support for Jackson on the House floor, according to the Washington Post. Those three states that benefited from the attack on Native peoples honored him with counties in his name including Lowndes County, Alabama.

 

Although many believe that President Abraham Lincoln freed all enslaved people in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, places in the South kept people enslaved until the Union Army emancipated them. Alabama was one of those places; it had worked hard to build an economy and culture that depended on slavery. In 1833, the Alabama legislature banned free Black people from residing in the state. By 1860, Montgomery had ballooned into one of state’s most prominent human trafficking hot spots 

Juneteenth is an important celebration of freedom, but freedom only occurred throughout much of the South after Union troops arrived.

The city neighbored Lowndes County, where my family has lived for over 150 years. Undoubtedly, some of my ancestors were sold in those markets during the domestic trade of enslaved people or brought to the Americas by the Lowndes family. 

 

It was not until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865 that all enslaved people in Alabama were officially emancipated. Only after Union troops beat Confederate soldiers in battle after battle and the state accepted defeat did Alabama finally ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That same year, Mississippi was among the states that rejected the 13th Amendment until it officially ratified it over 100 years later in 1995.

 

Juneteenth is an important celebration of freedom, but freedom only occurred throughout much of the South after Union troops arrived.

 

The Lowndes family’s legacy helped entrench the inequities that sustained slavery—as well as the discrimination that still exists today. The prejudice and bigotry that empowered the system of slavery manifests itself now through environmental and climate injustices. 

 

In present-day Lowndes County, Alabama, many residents are entrenched in poverty making low wages and unable to have reliable sanitation, sustainable housing, or climate justice. Diseases like hookworm commonly found in low-income nations have been documented in residents. As the climate changes, the Black families whose ancestors survived slavery will face new bold threats: heat, violent weather, flooding. Some 157 years since Alabama’s emancipation, state officials still believe it is still okay for folks to require outhouses.

As the climate changes, the Black families whose ancestors survived slavery will face new bold threats: heat, violent weather, flooding.

During this year’s commemoration of Juneteenth, let us continue to work for environmental and climate justice in communities where people were formerly enslaved. Instead of denial and political jargon to fan flames of division, let us build bridges through truth and acknowledgement of the pain so we can begin the healing. 

 

Our survival is dependent on protecting all people, air, soil, and water. To do that, we must not bury our histories. Otherwise, we face a mutual demise. Emancipate the land from the greed that propelled the pursuit of enslaved labor. We must vote against intentional division and structural inequality—and vote for the Earth, our common home. 

 

As we celebrate emancipation, let us not forget how the Earth’s memories, our people’s memories—no matter how complicated—are linked. Let us reframe Lowndes Counties everywhere as examples of environmental and climate justice.

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