Plans are underway to turn the slave ship Clotilda into a museum exhibit

Oct 15, 2020

The story of the last slave ship to arrive in America could soon become part of a public exhibit. The Clotilda sank in the Mobile River delta one hundred and sixty years ago. Artifacts from the schooner could be making one more trip soon to become part of an exhibit on slavery, the last captives to come to America, and the community they built.

The Clotilda was towed up the Mobile River to a secluded spot at Twelve-Mile Island. It was July of 1860. One hundred and ten men, women and children who had spent two months chained in the cargo hold were hidden on board. Slavery was legal in Alabama. But, importing slaves had been banned for more than 50 years. The captives were unloaded onto a steamboat. The Clotilda was burned to hide the evidence of the smuggling operation. The ship disappeared for almost 160 years.

Historian Ben Raines with wreckage from the slave ship Clotilda
Credit APR's Guy Busby

“You are running the route they ran, part of it,” says documentary filmmaker and author Ben Raines.

“This is when they were on the steamboat and you can say we traveled the route of the Clotilda," said Raines who found the Clotilda in 2018. He spent more than a year searching for the wreck. Raines realized early in the search that Clotilda’s owner had misled people about the ship’s location. Timothy Meagher wanted to hide evidence of the illegal smuggling. Raines pieced together clues, however, including one left by the last surviving Clotilda captive almost 70 years later.

“Cudjo Lewis says when he was a 90-year-old man interviewed by Zora Neil Hurston for her book ‘Barracoon,’” said Raines.

Cudjoe Lewis, whose interview with author Zora Neale Hurston led to clues to the location of the Clotilda.
Credit APR's Guy Busby

“He says the ship was burned at Twelve Mile Island. Well when he was a captive arriving in America, he would have had no idea where he was, but he spent the next five years as a slave working on Meaher’s steamboat. Zora Neil interviewed him and he counted off the landings on the river and he’s 86 at this point, this is something that happened when he was 19 years old. He counted off the landings on the river, 21 of them in perfect order from the way they occur today.”

Raines says the Clotilda isn’t just an interesting old shipwreck. It’s part of world history.

“There were 20,000 ships used in the global slave trade and, counting the Clotilda, just 13 have been discovered,” he said.

“The Clotilda is the only one ever discovered that brought slaves to America. It’s also the last ship that ever brought slaves to America. So, it’s hard to make a more historic and significant wreck related to slavery. This is the end. The last people forced into bondage in America came on that ship.”

The Alabama Historical Commission has authority over the Clotilda. The agency announced recently that the state has approved one million dollars to preserve the ship. When the Clotilda slaves were freed after the Civil War, many founded a South Alabama community that is still known as Africatown. Ben Raines says that’s also part of the story.

“You see this swamp around us. Imagine being up here in the dark, you’re chained up. You’ve been in the hold of a ship for two months coming across the ocean and then you’re hustled off the ship you arrived on and they light it on fire,” Raines recalled.

Site of the sunken wreckage of the slave ship Clotilda
Credit APR's Guy Busby

“Then, those people are slaves for five years. They get free. They actually buy land from their former masters and they make a town that grew wildly. It was the first and only community in America ruled by African born slaves and by 1900 it was the fourth biggest African American governed town in America.”

That’s where Anitra Henderson comes in. She’s executive director of external affairs and communications for the city of Mobile.

“We really want people to come into the city to experience not only the Clotilda and the descendants who are here, but also the resilience of how they created their own economy, work force development, and their own life in the area, Africatown,” she said.

Henderson says the city and county, along with the state, are working to prepare an exhibit to tell the story of the Clotilda by next summer.

“We’re in the process of constructing, along with Mobile County Commission, a Heritage House, that’s over in the Africatown area that will have that, kind of like a museum, that will tell the journey of those 110 people who were on the Clotilda so we’re very excited about that and it will be open July 2021,” said Henderson.

The planned Heritage House, boat trips to the Clotilda site, and walking tours of the area’s African-American history sites could make Mobile a major destination for cultural tourism.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” said David Clark, director of Visit Mobile, the city’s marketing agency.

“I think that when we look at this story, we’ll see that we’ll probably have an additional million visitors a year once the assets of Africatown are fully developed. I’m talking about a million visitors a year and you talk about changing people’s lives,” he said.

Clark says he success of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery shows how telling the story of the country’s Black heritage can be.

“We expect that as well,” he conjectured. “We expect a massive interest in this and we’re already aligning with the influencers from all over the world to share this story.”

The project is already bringing together agencies and people on a local, state and national level.

“We have had several meetings with the Africatown leadership and our city and with civic engagement, the state Department of Tourism, the Alabama Historical Commission and even, obviously, the Smithsonian is involved,” he said.

A museum would not only tell the story of the Clotilda and its survivors, but would have a major impact on the community.

“There’s a lot of things that have to go on,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association.

“We are working feverishly, all the groups in Africatown to make sure that we’re ready,” said Patterson.

“And my descendants association, making sure that people understand what the story of those 110 enslaved Africans was and to never forget what they went through in coming here and in their effort to help Africatown evolve. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Patterson says Heritage House and the Clotilda could be a key to the revival of Africatown.

“I grew up in Africatown and it used to be a thriving community, post offices, shops, doctors’ offices, stores,” Patterson recalled.

“It was unreal and it has the potential to be that again but only if redevelopment can take place and only if we get the partnerships working together from the city of Mobile, city of Prichard.”

David Clark says another one million visitors could bring in $400 million a year and some of that money will go to the Africatown community.

“I know some of the dream of Africatown is to have some hotels around there, some lodging and that certainly would happen when we have that kind of visitorship,” Clark thought.

“Done for all the right reasons, that we want to share, tell the truth about the past, help a very underserved community. Organically, if we do that with a lot of passion, we are really going to help change some lives for the future,” said Clark.

Site of what's left of the slave ship Clotilda.
Credit APR's Guy Busby

He added Patterson went with Raines to see the wreck of the Clotilda. The thought of what his ancestors went through on that ship jammed in a cargo hold for two months still angers him.

“What I felt when I saw the remains of that ship was utter disgust and then I was taken up to the island where they were stashed,” he said.

“Once they got here and they were about to be discovered they were offloaded onto a steamboat and taken to another island where they were stashed for a few weeks so they couldn’t be found," said Patterson. "There were bears and snakes. This was the first place they had clothes after two months.”

The story of those people is a story that is part of the fabric of America. Again, Ben Raines. “And what an American story,” Raines thought.

“These people who were, you couldn’t be any lower than a freed slave, especially one who’d only been in America five years, barely spoke English at that point many of them, and yet they survived. They not only survived, they prospered. They built a town.”

And the people of that town, and the slave ship that brought their ancestors to South Alabama could soon be telling their story to all who will listen.