MOBILE, Ala. ( Associated Press) — At the bottom of an Alabama river lies the remains of the last slave ship to arrive in the United States, which may hold clues to the past and future of a community founded by freed slaves. after the American civil war.
There is work underway that will help answer many questions from residents of Africatown USA: Will it be possible to bring the remains of the Clotilda to the surface to see what it says about the past and if it works as an attraction that helps revitalize a community in which descendants of slaves abound?
A crew hired by the Alabama Historical Commission removed fallen trees littering the ship’s wreckage, scooped mud from the hull and recovered some pieces of the Clotilda, said to be the best-maintained slave ship ever recovered. Work underway will help determine what can be done with the remains.
Some want to create a museum that includes the Clotilda, which had been hired by a white navigator willing to violate the order prohibiting the importation of slaves a year before the Confederacy was founded, which sought to preserve slavery and white supremacy in the south of the country.
“What I want to know is when. When are they going to get the boat out of that damn water,” Africatown resident and activist Joe Womack said at a public forum.
Nearby, a “heritage house” is being built that could display old artifacts.
Some are not concerned with the ship itself, seeing it as just one part of a much larger story.
Clotilda Descendants Association president Darron Patterson said a few artifacts and a replica of the ship would be enough to tell the story of 110 captive Africans and their role in slavery and in the United States.
“When those people came out of the (ship) cargo yard and became men and women, they produced Africatown,” said Patterson, whose great-great-grandfather Pollee Allen was one of the town’s original slaves. “We, as descendants, want to make sure his legacy lives on.”
The Clotilda is believed to be the last ship to bring African slaves to the United States. She left Mobile decades after Congress outlawed the slave trade, on a secret voyage financed by Timothy Meaher, whose descendants own land valued at millions of dollars.
The Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, transferred black men, women, and children to another vessel and set the vessel on fire so there would be no trace of slaves arriving in Mobile.
Most of Clotilda, however, did not burn. Three quarters of the ship is at the bottom of the Mobile River.
At the end of the 1861-1865 war, a group of Africans settled north of Mobile, in a place that became known as Africatown USA. Meaher refused to give them land, so they bought it and founded a thriving community that reminded them of Africa. There are still a few thousand people there, surrounded by factories and in a very precarious state.
Using a barge with a crane, the divers explored the murky waters for ten days this month to see the state of the boat, which was only identified in 2019 as the Clotilda. Some 90-foot (27-meter) long pieces of wood were removed for analysis and documentation.
Whether the Clotilda will ever be brought to the surface — something that could cost tens of millions of dollars — will depend on numerous factors, including the condition of the wood, the stability of the structure and the conditions of the river, according to James Delgado. , a marine archaeologist who works with SEARCH Inc.
A detailed mission report and further studies will take time, he said. But the remains, submerged about 10 feet (3 meters) deep, are in very good condition because they have been covered for decades by a protective layer of mud and could contain DNA samples from the captives, according to authorities.
“It is open, broken, burned… and yet intact. So intact, at least from an archaeological point of view, that it is the best-preserved example of thousands of slave ships arriving from Africa,” said Delgado.
Descendants of African captives will play “a big role” in deciding what to do with the remains, according to Stacye Hathorn, Alabama’s official state archaeologist. “At all times we consult with the community before anything else,” she said.
When the experts determine what can be done with the ship, the descendants will have a number of options to consider.
Some would like to create a pole of attraction that would revolve around the transatlantic slave trade. Others speak of a monument similar to the one dedicated to the victims of lynchings, installed in Montgomery, about 274 kilometers (170 miles) to the northeast, in 2018. And there are those who want to rebuild Africatown, which once had modest houses, with gardens and various businesses.
Joycelyn David, granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis, helped found the Clotilda Descendants Association. She says it’s unclear what should be done with the ship if it can be brought to the surface or with the recovered artifacts.
What interests her most is the people who endured a stormy transatlantic voyage and the impact their legacy can have on their descendants.
“I always said that the important thing is not the boat, it’s the people,” he said.
Reeves is a member of the Associated Press’s team on racial and ethnic issues.