History Demands We Preserve the Wreck of America’s Last Slave Ship
Clotilda was the last slave ship that brought Africans to America. It is now buried beneath the Mobile River in Alabama. That’s exactly where I first discovered it three years back.
In April 2018, I discovered the Clotilda with a University of Southern Mississippi team. I knew that it would be raised out of the riverbed soon and displayed in a museum of international standing. Africatown would be a preferred location, since it is where the Clotilda’s captives settled following Emancipation, and their descendants still live.
This wreck has historical and international significance. This wreck is unique in that it was the first to be found and the 13th of the slave ships worldwide. However, more than 20k ships were involved in global slavery trade. So few of the ships have been found that the brick-sized piece of a slave ship on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture comes from a South African slave ship that sank in port in Brazil.
Think of all the stories that could be made about the Clotilda. This ship is not only a slave ship but also the last one. One of the most unique things about the story of the Clotilda and its passengers is how well documented everything is, from the captain’s journal chronicling the voyage and purchase of the captives, to interviews the freed captives gave later in life. They were mostly young and under-aged when they were taken captive in 1860. Many survived to the age of 20.Thjournalistic and historical historians interviewed them dozens times.
We know more about the people who arrived in the Clotilda’s hold than is known about any of the millions of people who were enslaved in the Americas. It is clear where they are from and who sold them. We also know who purchased them. What happened after they got here. From their accounts, we can see the horrific horrors of African slavery raids. We also know how desperate they were to return home with the people they loved. This record reveals the hidden histories of the millions of African American families who are unaware that their forefathers were stolen and transported across the ocean.
All Americans have a connection to this history through the ship. The Alabama Historical Commission still has not promised the Clotilda family that the ship would be excavated. State officials will only say a study is underway “to determine what is both feasible and best for the protection and preservation of the vessel.” As an alternative, the state and its hired archaeologists have repeatedly suggested erecting a Pearl Harbor style memorial at the wreck site, miles upriver in a remote and forbidding section of swampland, rich in alligators and accessible only by boat. In an article, Alabama officials suggested this idea.
To think of anything other than digging up the ship is ridiculous. The state must immediately commit to this as its primary goal. One of the few who have held bits of the wooden hull of this ship in their hands is me. Although the ship has been destroyed and sink for over 160 years, there are still many pieces of it to be displayed. Only the will to pull the ship out of the mud can stop it from being pulled. You will also need a lot money.
The state of Alabama likely doesn’t have the money for the task. The state pledged $1 million to work on Clotilda in the 2 years since its discovery. It is expected that the cost to raise the ship would be $10 million. However, it is possible. Just as Civil War era ships and submarines have been raised—or the Viking ship Vasa raised from Stockholm’s harbor 330 years after she sank—so too can the Clotilda be brought up into the light of day.
That’s what the descendants want.
“We want it dug up. It has yet to happen. And the state of Alabama is telling us they don’t plan to dig it up. We would love to see that hull on display at the new museum being built in Africatown,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. “Put it on display, climate controlled whatever. Now we’re hearing the state and these archaeologists say they don’t think it can be dug up, where they used to talk about how to do it. Yeah, it’s going to cost money, but we want it dug up.”
Clotilda is now on display in an Africantown museum. This will help to revive a once-thriving Africatown that has been suffering for decades. It is now a ghost of the once-thriving city it was in 1980s. It has dwindled from 12,000 residents to 2,000 today. The decline of Africatown—by 1912 the fourth largest community in the nation led by African Americans—is the result of 100 years of systemic racism from the state of Alabama and the city of Mobile.
Alabama businessmen and politicians conspired since the 1920s to build a strong industrial zone around Africatown, which included the biggest paper mill in the country. At the same time, several highways were routed through the town. This cut the center of the community in half, and destroyed the downtown district. As recently as 1992 officials used eminent domain to take some of the last land owned by the descendants of the original African settlers—land the Africans had purchased from the plantation owner who enslaved them—to build a highway to facilitate the movement of 18 wheelers from the factories and enormous state port facility nearby. When they built this new highway, the state tore down the last surviving cabins built by the Africans, including Cudjo Lewis’s cabin, where Zora Neale Hurston interviewed him for the book that became Barracoon.
The stage is set for revival today thanks to the efforts of a committed corps made up of Africantown residents. A ship could be the transport that takes the community to its destination. A $1 billion economic impact annually from Civil Rights tourism is shown at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum, Montgomery, Alabama.
The court invited me to participate in the federal admiralty hearing, which determined the owner of the wreck. I did not fight to claim ownership, but instead listened to Alabama officials who promised to find the ship and display it in Africatown. It was my trust that the government would do the right things. This decision is regrettable. It may be the last obstacle in our quest to display this magnificent artifact.
It is time for the Alabama Historical Commission to commit unequivocally to digging up the Clotilda, even if Alabama can’t afford the bill. It doesn’t matter if it’s money. The nation should rally behind Clotilda to finance her rescue from the river mud. Clotilda is sure to have many supporters in the United States and around the globe. They will understand the significance of Clotilda for Africatown, and will also be able to support the mission.
“Not digging up the ship, that’s just stupid. It is history. It was the Luray Motel, where Martin Luther King was murdered. I wept when I visited Memphis. That’s the same history we’ve got here in Africatown. People are going to cry when they see the ship,” said Lamar Howard, whose food truck feeds everyone at community celebrations in Africatown. “We don’t have anything if we don’t have the ship. The truth will free you, right? The ship is the truth. All the Black folks in America got here chained up on ships just like that.”