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Africantown builds a museum for the slave ship Clotilda

APR's Guy Busby
Groundbreaking for Clotilda museum in Africatown

An APR news feature

Work is starting on a museum recognizing the survivors of America’s last slave ship. The Clotilda landed in Mobile in 1860. Their descendants went onto establish the community of Africatown, where the Clotilda Museum will be built.

Credit APR's Guy Busby
"Buffalo soldier" re-enactors at the groundbreaking for the Clotilda Museum in Africantown

On a February afternoon, a squad of re-enactors dressed as nineteenth century black calvarymen, known as Buffalo Soldiers, presented the colors at a ceremony to start construction of Africatown Heritage House. The museum will open this summer to tell the story of America’s last slave ship, the people it carried, and their legacy.

"Because this is serious stuff to make sure that we never, ever forget the story of those people who made this place what it is. We won't forget," said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association.

He joined the audience of descendants and dignitaries who gathered at the groundbreaking ceremony. The event was to recognize people who came to America in the most degrading condition imaginable. 1

"Because I think it's ironic that over 160-something years ago, 110 people were crammed into a space no bigger than some of your living rooms, for two months, butt naked, and then they come here and they had to persevere for even longer and now today," he said. "We're about to turn over some dirt to break ground to honor those people. God, really has a sense of humor, because those people were very special and there were special people already in Africatown when they got there. We don't want to forget that. This is not about all Clotilda. This is about Africatown and what happened to make Africatown, special. says this is a story that needs to be told."

Credit APR's Guy Busby
The groundbreaking ceremony for the Clotilda Museum at Africantown

"The story of Africatown and its origins is truly unique and one that certainly deserves recognition and a place in the annals of the history of our country," said Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson. "It's the story of people, people who were kidnapped and forcibly removed from their homes. It's the story of struggle, of persistence and survival in an atmosphere and culture of bondage and oppression and it's also a story of community, family, love, home and finally a story of respect, remembrance and, now, revitalization. "

The museum will house artifacts from the Clotilda. The ship was burned in secret after landing the 110 captives and wasn’t found until 2018. That’s not all that’s planned for the museum. Mobile County Commissioner Mercia Ludgood says Heritage House will be a 5,000-square-foot facility that will include a conference room and space for community activities.

"The Africatown Heritage House will give us an opportunity to have a permanent site where someone who's coming in will be able to see the Africatown story," the Commissioner said. "It'll be not just the Clotilda. There's a part of the story, but it's a larger story and the History Museum working with the Alabama Historical Commission is creating this exhibit to tell that story."

The Mobile City Museum will operate Heritage House. Museum Director Meg Fowler says the facility is a chance to provide a wealth of little-known information about a dark chapter in American history.

Credit APR's Guy Busby
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Clotilda Museum at Africantown

"One thing we really want to do as much as possible is use primary sources and there are so many," said Fowler. "That's one of the things that's extraordinary about this story is that we have more primary source documentation on the Middle Passage about this voyage than really almost any other voyage. Using these primary sources so people can hear the actual accounts, audio sources, visual, really trying to make a multi-sensory experience for the visitor."

Archaeologists with the University of South Alabama have also been at work in Africatown examining the site where Heritage House and a nearby welcome center will be built.

"What's really neat about the archeology project at the Africatown Welcome Center is the multiple components that we have with it," said Phillip Carr, a professor of anthropology at USA. He says research includes interviewing long-time residents. Carr is also studying sites with ground-penetrating radar.

"We have the USA Center for Archaeological Studies doing what we call shovel testing, which is not a very intensive archaeological investigation but it's a way to sort of quickly allow us what are the kinds of artifacts across that project area and the kind of things that we find are what you would expect so far, mainly early to mid-20th Century material," said Carr. "The bad news from an archaeological perspective is that land form has seen a lot of action over the years, construction, filling and so forth so the archaeological deposits seem to be pretty mixed. So, we don't have anything to identify to this point, but we do have material culture from the time periods that the historic maps and oral history tell us would be there. 139 Most of the informants I guess are born since 1940 that I've dealt with, a couple of octogenarians, maybe two and essentially they have articulated just what Phil and his team has suggested is there."

Kern Jackson is assistant professor of African-American studies at South Alabama. He says many interviews have included stories of how the community has been broken up by highways and commercial development.

"Sort of the narrative of being," said Jackson. "It slowly went away because Alabama docks came in and put the big road in. That was the first wave and then the second wave was just the infrastructure and utilities and such that sort of went away because of the different type of construction that were there. 302 317 Most of them, it's their childhood and then some of them remember being moved at the same time urban renewal was going on all around the city. Those are the sorts of themes and connections that seem to be bearing out."

Supporters hope that the museum will help restore a community and a part of Mobile’s heritage and tell that story to the world. That includes Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

"We will continue to get to the point so that not just are we honoring the ancestors, but the millions of other people around the world that want to know the story of the Clotilda and Africatown.," said the Mayor.

Stimpson says the story of the last slave ship to arrive in the United States is one of perseverance and hardship for the people of Africatown. He says the soon to be built Clotida museum will tell that story.

"We have an opportunity to unite together to tell this story so when people come to see Africatown. They will sense that resiliency. They'll know that resiliency, but they'll also understand about unity," the Mayor said.

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