Alabama shipwreck contains keys to relatives of enslaved Africans

MOBILE, Ala. – Keys to the past and future of a community descended from enslaved Africans lie in a river bed on Alabama’s Gulf Coast where the remains of the last known US slave ship lie a few miles from the remains of the village built by the newly liberated people after the Civil War.

The work carried out this month will help answer a question residents of the area called Africatown USA are dying to solve: Can remains of the slave ship Clotilda be retrieved from the water, both to fill in details about her heritage and as an attraction serve who could revive the place their ancestors built after emancipation?

A crew hired by the Alabama Historical Commission, who worked over 10 days through Thursday, cleared fallen trees from the submerged remains of the ship, scooped debris out of the hull and retrieved displaced parts to see what was left of the Clotilda, which is described as the most intact slave ship ever found. The work will help determine what, if anything, can be done with the debris in the years to come.


Some want a museum featuring the actual Clotilda, who was hired by a wealthy white steamship captain in a bet to violate the US ban on slave imports the year before the Confederacy was formed, to end slavery and white supremacy in the South maintain.

“The question is, give me a schedule. What’s the date to get the boat out of this damn water?” Joe Womack, Africatown resident and activist, asked team members during a public forum as work began. A new “Heritage House” is being built nearby that could display artifacts.

Others aren’t too concerned about the ship itself, which they see as just part of a larger story. Clotilda Descendants Association President Darron Patterson said a few artifacts and a replica would do well to tell the story of the 110 African prisoners and how their lives contribute to the narrative of slavery and the United States.


“When these people came out of this hold and grew into men and women, they spawned Africatown,” said Patterson, whose great-great-grandfather, Pollee Allen, was among the captives. “And we, as descendants, want to be sure that legacy lives on.”

The Clotilda was the last known ship to transport African captives to the American South for enslavement. It left Mobile decades after Congress banned the slave trade in a secret voyage funded by Timothy Meaher, whose descendants still own millions of dollars’ worth of land around Mobile.

The Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, transferred his cargo of women, men and children from the ship as soon as it arrived in Mobile and set the ship on fire to hide evidence of the illegal voyage. But most of Clotilda did not catch fire, and up to three-quarters of the ship remained in the Mobile River, which empties into Mobile Bay.


After the war ended, a group of Africans settled north of Mobile in what later became known as Africatown USA. Because Meaher refused to give them land, they bought property and established a thriving community resembling the Africa of their memories. Several thousand people still live in the area, which is now surrounded by heavy industry and has fallen into disrepair in recent decades.

From a crane-topped barge, divers groped their way through murky waters to determine the condition of the shipwreck, which posed an unidentified hazard on navigational charts before being identified as Clotilda in 2019. Workers pulled some barnacle-encrusted logs from the ship, about 27 meters long, for testing and documentation; Most are returned to the river.


Whether Clotilda could ever be farmed – an operation that could cost tens of millions of dollars – depends on several factors, including the condition of the wood, the stability of the wreck and the river’s surroundings, said James Delgado, a marine archaeologist with SEARCH Inc.

A final report, including a detailed follow-up analysis, will take some time, he said. But the wreck, in up to 10 feet (3 meters) of water, is in remarkably good shape because it has been encased in protective mud for decades that could potentially contain DNA from prisoners, officials say.

“(It is) open, broken, burned, and yet still intact and so intact, at least as an archaeological site, that it is the best preserved example of the many thousands of slave ships that brought people from Africa to the Americas,” he told Delgado.

The descendants of the African captives will play a “big role” in deciding what to do with the wreck, said Alabama state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn.


“At every stage, we talked to the community first,” she said.

Once experts have determined what can be done with the ship from a scientific and technical point of view, Clotilda’s descendants could consider a variety of options for the Africatown area.

Some envision a major historical attraction focused on the transatlantic slave trade, others a memorial similar to the Lynch Victims Memorial that opened in 2018 in Montgomery, about 170 miles northeast. Some want to rebuild Africatown, which once had modest houses with gardens and several shops.

Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African prisoner Charlie Lewis, helped found the Clotilda Descendants Association. She said there is no clear consensus on what to do with Clotilda if she can be recovered, or with artifacts taken from the wreck.


Personally, she is most interested in the people who made the arduous journey across the Atlantic, and what her legacy could mean for today’s descendants to improve their lives.

“I’ve always said it’s not about the ship, it’s about the people,” Davis said.


Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

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Justin Scacco

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