Heroes of 9/11 join Miracle Mets star Cleon Jones in historic Africatown rebuilding effort
Welcome to Alabama’s historic Africatown, the unlikely spot where 1969 will meet 9/11 to help rebuild a town founded in the 19th century.
A team of 30 New York-area first responders, including veterans of the World Trade Center rubble, headed south Sunday to help retired and revered New York Mets star Cleon Jones’ longstanding efforts to rebuild his struggling Gulf Coast hometown.
The 80-year-old Jones, who famously caught the final out of the Mets’ 1969 World Series victory, will work alongside the New York contingent in the Alabama neighborhood where the last slave ship to the U.S. arrived in 1860.
“One day they’re in Africa, now they’re in America and just left to their own devices,” said Bill Keegan, the founder and president of the Heart 9/11 program. “To me, that’s pretty evil. And I kind of tied it to 9/11 — we’re still dealing with the ripples of evil.
“And the Africatown descendants are still feeling the ripples of that time.”
The town was founded by 32 of the West Africans forced aboard the slave ship Clotilda and brought against their will to Alabama.
A skilled squad of firefighters, law enforcement and building trades members hopes to rebuild 8-to-12 homes working alongside Jones’ non-profit The Last Out Community Foundation. They will be joined by Mets owner Steve Cohen and New York-based Laborers Local 79.
Jones was thrilled to hear from the group when they first reached out. Four days of work begin Monday in the historic community of less than 2,000 residents just north of Mobile.
“Certainly we’ll talk to you if you want to help out in any way, shape or form,” said Jones, born and raised there before working his way to Shea Stadium. “That’s what we need!”
For Jones, there are fond memories of his childhood in Africatown, listening to his hero Jackie Robinson’s exploits on the radio with his grandmother and great-grandmother after the Hall of Famer broke baseball’s color line.
He’s prone to quoting the late Robinson’s take on the world: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
“No one can feel what I’m feeling all my life about this community,” said Jones. “This is the community that made me and now’s my chance to give back. I don’t care what I do, whatever I accomplish it won’t be enough.
“We’ll keep fighting until we get what we need to move forward.”
The wheels for the trip were set in motion when one of Keegan’s crew saw an interview with Jones about his efforts.
“I remembered him from 1969,” recalled Keegan. “This was not in our lane exactly, but I gave him a call. What a great man, what a great gentleman. We spoke, and I said if we can, we would like to help you.”
The group has already shipped one of their baseball hats down for the appreciative Jones to wear during their visit.
“Our plan is to turn this around and revert the community to its old form, a viable community with a lot of history that needs to be told,” said the long-retired left fielder with the familiar No. 21 jersey.
While Jones swings a hammer instead of a bat these days, he admits to aging out from some of the construction work.
“My wife doesn’t let me get up on the roof anymore,” said Jones. “I’m past that stage. But I’m outside doing what I can do, going from site to site. It will be a joy to see this take place and see the smiles on the people’s faces who we’re helping.”