In the waters of the Mobile River a crew including archaeologists is examining the remains of the Clotilda – the last known U.S. slave ship – which is resting a few miles from what’s left of the village built by the newly freed people after the American Civil War.
The wreck, in as much as 10 feet (3 meters) of water, is in remarkably good shape because it’s been encased for decades in protective mud that conceivably could hold traces of DNA from captives, officials say.
“The wooden wreck of Clotilda lies on a bank in anywhere from 6 to 10 feet of water – on its side a bit, 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 and specifically to the United States. And it’s the last known ship to do that and to transport captives to America, specifically here to Alabama,” says archaeologist, James Delgado.
Working from a barge topped with a crane, divers have been feeling their way through murky water to determine the condition of the ship’s wreckage, which was an unidentified hazard on navigation charts before being identified as Clotilda in 2019.
Workers have pulled up some barnacle-encrusted timbers from the ship, roughly 90 feet (27 meters) in length, for testing and documentation; most will be returned to the river.
The research performed this month will help answer a question residents of the area called Africatown USA are anxious to resolve: Can remnants of the slave ship Clotilda be retrieved from the water to both fill out details about their heritage and to serve as an attraction that might revitalise the place their ancestors built after emancipation?
“When you go to try to raise a ship, particularly a wooden ship that was sunk violently, you need to look at whether the backbone is broken. You need to look at the ribs that held it together are cracked. And if you just try to lift it without taking care of that or bracing that then it can fall apart and it will be crushed. And that’s happened with other wooden wrecks that have come out of a river environment,” explains Delgado.
The crew hired by the Alabama Historical Commission has taken fallen trees off the submerged remains of the ship, scooped muck out of the hull and retrieved displaced pieces to see what’s 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 wreckage in years ahead.
“Shipwrecks, particularly shipwrecks with powerful stories and meaning for a community like Clotilda, inspire all sorts of ideas and desires. And as to what is doable, really depends on what the hard science says can be done that doesn’t destroy it,” explains Delgado.
Some want a museum featuring the actual Clotilda, which was hired by a rich, white steamship captain on a bet to violate the U.S. ban on slave importation the year before the Confederacy was founded to preserve slavery and white supremacy in the South.
Others are calling for a memorial akin to the monument to lynching victims that opened in 2018 in Montgomery, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) to the northeast. Some want to rebuild Africatown, which once had modest homes with gardens and multiple businesses.
Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis, helped found the Clotilda Descendants Association.
She says there’s no clear consensus on what to do with Clotilda if it can be raised, or with artifacts taken off the wreck.
My ancestors were aboard the Clotilda. Charlie Lewis was his enslaved name. Oluale was his original name. And Maggie Lewis. I’m sixth generation of those enslaved Africans and I live here in Africatown.”
“Well some people want a replica built, right? And put it in Josephine Allen. And some may want the ship to be dug out of the ocean and to see if it could be repaired in some type of way. But from my understanding, if they dig it up it may disintegrate,” she says.
Personally, Davis is most interested in the people who endured a tortuous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and what their legacy could mean to descendants today in terms of improving their lives.
“When I think about the ship I think about what those enslaved Africans went through on that ship. So, you know, I’m kind of two sided. It’s kind of like, what would this do for the community? You know, is there some type of economic growth if this becomes like a tourist attraction with the artifacts, people can come and look at it. If they build another museum, if they build a replica, you know how can it benefit the community?” she says.
The Clotilda was the last ship known to transport African captives to the American South for enslavement.
It departed Mobile decades after Congress outlawed the slave trade, on a clandestine trip 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 off the ship once it arrived in Mobile and set fire to the vessel to hide evidence of the illegal journey.
But most of Clotilda didn’t catch fire, and as much as three-quarters of the ship remains in the Mobile River, which empties into Mobile Bay.
After the war ended, a group of the Africans settled north of Mobile in a place that came to be called Africatown USA.
With Meaher refusing to give them land, they purchased property and started a thriving community that resembled the Africa of their memories.
A few thousand people still live in the area, which is now surrounded by heavy industry and fell into disrepair in recent decades.
The president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, Darron Patterson, says a few artifacts and a replica would be just fine for telling the tale of the 110 African captives and how their lives add to the narrative of slavery and the United States.
“I mean it’s one of the greatest archaeological finds in the last 100 years. So yes, we care about the ship. But what we really care about is the 110 people who were in the cargo hold of that ship. Because those are the people who were underestimated. Once those people came out of that cargo hold and grew up into men and women, they produced Africatown. And now we want to make sure the legacy of Africatown continues to live and we, as the descendants, want to be sure that legacy lives on.”