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Supporters want to add Africatown and the Clotilda to Alabama's Civil Rights Trail

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Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail takes visitors to sites around the state where people struggled for equality and social justice. Names associated with the current trail included Rosa Parks and Doctor Martin Luther King, junior. But now, supporters say a new site should be included. It’s a spot with roots going back almost a century before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the letters from the Birmingham jail.

Construction should be complete on Mobile’s Africatown Heritage House next spring. The museum and cultural center will tell the story of the Clotilda. That’s the last slave ship to sail to the United States. The descendants of its 1860 passengers settled here and still live in Africatown to this day.

“And going forward with Africatown in the next couple of years, that’s going to be a major destination,” said Lee Sentell. He’s Alabama tourism director and the author of a recent book on the United States Civil Rights Trail. Sentell says Africatown could be a major addition to Alabama’s trail.

Construction underway at the Africatown Heritage House to tell the story of the slave ship Clotilda.
Guy Busby
Construction underway at the Africatown Heritage House to tell the story of the slave ship Clotilda.

“Our office, the Alabama Tourism Department has visited Mobile several times encouraging them to do what we’ve done successfully in Montgomery, which is to recruit people to become experienced givers. We don’t call them guides,” Sentell contends

Sentell says having the actual descendants of enslaved people still on the site could be a powerful way to tell the story of the Clotilda and its captive cargo.

“When we met with members of the five families in Africatown, I encouraged them,” he said. “I said embrace the idea of bringing one of your ancestors back to life by telling their story in the first person. Let that person talk about it was like or what they have heard from the members who have come over on the Clotilda, but put it in the present tense, put it in the first person so that people can understand more about what Africatown was really all about because for 100 years, I think Mobile, particularly African Americans in Mobile they just sort of pushed that story away and said that didn’t happen or they’re making that up, but it’s amazing that the Clotilda was found, so I think that’s, within a couple of years that’s going to make Mobile a very strong destination for the African American story.”

Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association.
Guy Busby
Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association.

“Absolutely. The trail. This is all part of the trail,” said Darron Patterson. He’s president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. Patterson says Africatown is a part of the story of the long journey to civil rights in Alabama.

“This is all part of the state’s Civil Rights Trail. We have people here coming. They started in Montgomery. They’re coming here. Now they can go through Tuscaloosa,” he said. “They can go through other parts of the state that have something like this that is a part of history. So, it’s all part of what the state is doing. Now we want the state to understand what they’ve got on their hands. When you go Montgomery, you can’t step off the curb without getting hit by a tour bus. We want the same thing to happen here. We want the people to know the Clotilda story.the Africatown story and what this community was all about.”

“The great thing about Montgomery and the Equal Justice Initiative and the Lynching Memorial it tells the story,” said Meg Fowler, director of the Mobile City Museum.

“Look, the history of America is not pretty, but it’s history,” she contended. “Things happened that shouldn’t have happened, but they did and you can’t whitewash it. You can’t say this didn’t happen.”

Pat Duggins

Fowler says the museum is working to help prepare the exhibits in Africatown.

“This is best documented middle passage story in existence and so we have an abundance of primary source texts,” she said. “That means visitors will be able to read and hear powerful first-hand accounts.”

Fowler says this will be one of the best documented stories of people brought to America from Africa in the slave trade.

“So the middle passage is typically what’s referred in that triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. It’s that passage of enslaved people from West Africa to the United States, so this is the best documented voyage of enslaved persons from West Africa to the Americas,” Fowler said. “So, the exhibit tells the story beginning with its West African origins and that’s important. It tells the story of the West African origins through the last voyage, through the establishment of Africatown and then tells the story of the discovery of the sunken schooner.”

Fowler also says Africatown’s story would be a major addition to the Civil Rights Trail.

“It would be a wonderful addition,” she believes. “There’s so much in historic Africatown and there’s an interest in people deserve to see what’s here. It’s not a discussion that I’ve been a part of, but I would love to see that happen.”

The civil rights trail had its beginning almost 20 years ago. That’s when visitors from other areas of the U.S. and around the world were drawn by stories of the civil rights struggle. Lee Sentell says that made Alabama a destination.

“Bob Riley appointed me state tourism director in 2003 and when I was talking with people in the office, the subject came up that a trade publication about group tours in the U.S. about people were coming on the Civil Rights Trail and I said what is the Civil Rights Trail, what is the Alabama Civil Rights Trail?” Sentell recalled. “They said it’s the places in Selma, Tuskeegee, Birmingham and other Civil Rights cities where there are tourist attractions that people can tour and I said what is our fulfillment piece for that and they said ‘well, we don’t have one,’ and I said, ‘OK, so that’s a problem.’ If people are coming from Detroit and Michigan, at that time it was mostly Black schools, then we need to give them a brochure. So, we created a brochure and we called it the Alabama Civil Rights Trail.”

Lee Sentell's new book "The United States Civil Rights Trail"
Pat Duggins
Lee Sentell's new book "The United States Civil Rights Trail"

Sentell says that while some of Alabama’s history during the Civil Rights Movement isn’t easy for everyone to recall, the events changed not only the state and it is a story that belongs to the world.

“The Civil Rights Movement, it was a rough part of history, particularly for the state of Alabama and, but it’s something. It’s part of Alabama’s history and frankly, looking at it 50 years ago in the rearview mirror, what happened in Alabama changed the world. What happened in Selma. What happened in Birmingham and other places and it was for the betterment of mankind,” Sentell contended. “So, in a way, this is about celebration of America becoming more America for everybody not just for the wealthy white people.”

But it changed the future outlook of life for millions of African Americans. Darron Patterson says this is a story that has to be told.

“The great thing about Montgomery and the Equal Justice Initiative and the Lynching Memorial it tells the story,” Patterson said. “Look, the history of America is not pretty, but it’s history. Things happened that shouldn’t have happened, but they did and you can’t whitewash it. You can’t say this didn’t happen. This is our history. You cannot deny this. It won’t be denied. This will not let you deny it. EJI in Montgomery will not let you deny it. The lynching memorial will not let you deny it.”

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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