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History Demands We Preserve the Wreck of America’s Last Slave Ship

8 minute read

The wreck of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States, remains buried in mud on the bottom of the Mobile River in Alabama, exactly where I discovered the long-lost ship three years ago.

When I found the Clotilda in April of 2018 with a team from the University of Southern Mississippi, I felt certain that the ship would be raised from the riverbed and put on display in a world class museum in short order. Preferably in Africatown, the only community in the country founded by enslaved Africans, where the captives who arrived on the Clotilda settled after Emancipation and where their descendants live today.

The wreck is clearly of international historical significance. It is the only ship ever found that was involved in the American slave trade, and one of only 13 slave ships ever located worldwide, though more than 20,000 ships participated in the global slave 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.

Imagine the story that can be told surrounding the wreck of the Clotilda. More than just a slave ship, it is the last slave ship. 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. Because they were young, most 20 or under, when they were captured in 1860, many of them lived into the 20th century and were interviewed dozens of times by journalists and historians.

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. We know exactly what part of Africa they came from, who captured and sold them, who bought them, exactly when they arrived in America, and what happened to them once they were here. We know the murderous horrors of an African slaving raid from their descriptions, and we know how desperately they longed for home and the loved ones they knew had either been killed or captured and enslaved. The record of their experience illuminates and informs the lost histories of millions of African-American families who know only that their forebears were stolen and shipped across the ocean.

The ship is the key to that history, for all Americans. But the Alabama Historical Commission has yet to promise to the Clotilda descendants that the ship will be dug up. 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. Alabama officials made this suggestion most recently in an article that revealed the ship is largely intact.

It is absurd to consider anything but digging up the ship, and the state should commit to that immediately as the primary goal. I am one of only a few people who has touched the ship, and held pieces of its wooden hull in my hands. Despite having been burned and sunk for 160 years, I know there is plenty of ship left to put on display. The only thing standing in the way of pulling the ship from the mud is the will to do it. And a lot of money.

The state of Alabama likely doesn’t have the money for the task. In the two years since the discovery was announced, the state has pledged just $1 million for work on the Clotilda. Raising the ship will likely cost $10 million or more. But it can be done. 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.

A mural depicting the schooner Clotilda, which carried the last cargo of enslaved Africans known to have been delivered to the United States, in Mobile, Ala.
A mural depicting the schooner Clotilda, which carried the last cargo of enslaved Africans known to have been delivered to the United States, in Mobile, Ala., on May 24, 2019.Emily Kask—The New York Times/Redux

“We want it dug up. That has not happened. 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.”

On display in a museum into Africatown, Clotilda will become an economic engine for a revitalized Africatown, which has been in decline for decades. The once thriving city is a shadow of what it was as recently as the 1980s. The population has dropped from a high of 12,000 to about 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.

Since the 1920s, Alabama politicians and business leaders conspired to surround Africatown with heavy industry, including the largest paper mill in the world. Simultaneously, officials routed several major highways through the heart of town, slicing the community in half and destroying the downtown business 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.

Today, revitalization efforts by a dedicated corps of Africatown residents have set the stage for a renaissance. The ship can be the vehicle that carries the community there. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in nearby Montgomery, Alabama is linked to a $1 billion annual economic impact from Civil Rights tourism, showing how transformative having the ship on display could be.

As the person who found the ship, I was invited by the court to take part in the federal admiralty hearing that determined who owned the wreck. I chose not to fight for ownership of the wreck, instead deferring to the state of Alabama, whose officials were quoted in local and national media promising to dig the ship up and put it on display in Africatown in the days after the find was first revealed to the public. I trusted that the state would do the right thing. I now regret that decision, as the state may end up the only obstacle standing in the way of putting this most powerful of artifacts on display.

It is time for the Alabama Historical Commission to commit unequivocally to digging up the Clotilda, even if Alabama can’t afford the bill. If it is a question of money, it is time for the nation to rally around the Clotilda and finance the effort to wrest her from the river mud, perhaps through an act of Congress. I believe Clotilda will have many friends around the country and the world who will support this mission, understanding what the Clotilda represents for Africatown and our shared history.

“Not digging up the ship, that’s just stupid. The ship is the history. When I went to Memphis and I saw the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was killed, I cried. 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. You know that saying, the truth will set you free? Well, the ship is the truth. All the Black folks in America got here chained up on ships just like that.”

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