Descendants of Last Slave Ship Still Live in Alabama Community

Descendants of Last Slave Ship Still Live in Alabama Community


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For most black Americans descended from enslaved Africans, there’s no way of tracing back where their ancestors came from. There’s also no way of discovering, as Malcolm X emphasized, their “true family name.” The slave trade ripped families apart, and records from slave ships and plantations often identified enslaved people with multiple or incomplete names. It’s extremely difficult to connect the freed black Americans first named on the 1870 census to their enslaved ancestors—a problem known as the 1870 Brick Wall.

Given this systematic erasure, the story of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the U.S., occupies a profoundly unique place in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

There were roughly 110 African children, teenagers, and young adults on board the Clotilda when it arrived in Alabama in 1860, just one year before the Civil War. Unable to return to Africa after emancipation on June 19, 1865—aka Juneteenth—they left records and gave interviews about who they were and where they came from that survive today. The musician Questlove is descended from survivors of the ship, and when he discovered this on the genealogy show Finding Your Roots, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., told him, “You hit the jackpot.”

“It’s the best documented story of the entire slave trade, not only to the U.S., but to the Americas,” says historian Sylviane A. Diouf, author of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America.

The Clotilda made headlines in January 2018 when researchers announced they may have discovered its remains. Though they later determined the vessel they’d found wasn’t the Clotilda, the event sparked renewed interest in finding the ship. In May 2018, Harper Collins published Zora Neale Hurston’s “lost” interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the ship, who died in 1935. These developments have brought more attention to Clotilda survivors as well as to African Town, the community they built for themselves in Alabama.

Even though slavery was still legal in 1860, the international slave trade was not, and hadn’t been since 1808. But southern white men broke the law by importing captured Africans long after the practice was banned, and even viewed their evasion of the law as a source of pride. Mobile businessman Timothy Meaher organized the Clotilda voyage after making a bet that he could, as he put it, “bring a shipful of n*****s right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.”

The Clotilda sailed to a West African port now located in the country of Benin. There, the captain bought people from the Benin region like Cudjo Lewis. Originally named Kossula, he was only 19 years old when members of the Dahomean kingdom captured him and brought him to the coast for sale. In Alabama, Meaher sold some of the Africans, but divided up most between himself, his two brothers and the ship’s captain—none of whom were ever convicted for their crimes.

Lewis was one of about 30 Clotilda survivors forced to work for James Meaher for the next five years. When news of emancipation reached this group in 1865, “the first thing they wanted to do was to go back home,” Diouf says. Meaher didn’t provide them with passage back to Africa, and they soon realized that they wouldn’t be able to earn the money for their passage themselves.

Understanding that they would have to find a place to live in the U.S., they decided to ask Timothy Meaher to provide a form of reparations. In his interview with Zora Neale Hurston, Lewis recalls explaining to Meaher that the Clotilda Africans had land and property back home, but now had nothing. Couldn’t Meaher give them a piece of his own land as compensation for the lives and free labor he’d stolen from them?

According to Lewis, Meaher responded: “‘Fool do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothin.’”

Rebuffed by Meaher, the group resolved to work hard and save money in order to buy some land from him, which they did (Lewis noted dryly to Hurston that Meaher didn’t even “take off one five cent from de price for us.”) With this and other land they purchased, they built a community called African Town. Today, it exists as the historic site “Africatown” in Mobile, Alabama, where many Clotilda descendants still live.

“They decided that if you won’t send us home, we’ll build Africa here in Alabama,” says Robert Battles, Sr., former executive director of the Historic Africatown Welcome Center. “In the midst of Jim Crow, segregation, and reconstruction, they built a free society controlled and run by Africans.”

“I think that what this particular story is about is really the unity of the people who were on the ship,” Diouf says. “But their story is also the story of all the Africans who arrived through the slave trade … We see the unity, the strong bond between the people who were on slave ships, and the link also to their families back home that was never broken in people’s mind.”

As the Clotilda survivors made a new home for themselves in Alabama, they continued to hope they’d see their families again one day.

“They were saying that they knew that their families in Africa had been looking for them,” Diouf says. “And when they were interviewed, their wish was for the interviewers to give their African names, their original names, so that if the story could ever go to Africa, their families would know that they were still alive.”

After the Clotilda’s voyage to Africa, Meaher burned the ship in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta to destroy the evidence of the illegal journey. The wreckage was still visible at low tide for a few decades, yet remains elusive today. Recent speculation about the location of the ship has brought national attention to issues in Africatown, such as its lawsuit against an industrial plant for generating cancer-causing pollution. This spring, the community secured a grant to build a museum, and many researchers and organizations remain interested in searching for the Clotilda.

If found, the Clotilda would be the only ship from the U.S. slave trade ever recovered. But in particular, it would be important for the Africatown community. Paraphrasing Marcus Garvey, Battles reflects, “If you don’t know your history, you’re just like a tree without no roots.”


For first time since Clotilda discovery, descendants of slave ship’s owner speak out

Up until Thursday, the descendants of Timothy Meaher – the wealthy steamship owner who financed the last slave ship to arrive in the United States -- remained silent as talks continue to ramp up over the revitalization of the Africatown community north of Mobile.

But that changed following discussions family members had with Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

Family members agreed to sell a former credit union building to the city for a steeply discounted price of $50,000. The building will be renovated within the next 60 to 90 days and turned into a food bank serving the low-to-moderate income neighborhood.

It will also serve as an office building for the newly-established Africatown Redevelopment Corporation (ARC).

The family, in their first public first statement since the hull of the Clotilda was discovered more than two years ago, said the future of the credit union building will have a “lasting positive impact.”

“When Mayor Stimpson contacted the Meaher family regarding the sale and/or donation of this property to the city of Mobile for this project, we could not think of a better way to give back to the community,” the Meaher family wrote in a statement provided by the city in a press release.

The statement did not indicate which member of the family was commenting.

“We all look forward to watching this endeavor become a reality with a lasting impact on the community for years to come,” the statement reads.

Stimpson and other elected officials disclosed the building’s sale during a news conference outside the former Scott Credit Union, which had been shuttered for the past 15 years.

“This is a historic day,” Stimpson said. “We’re sincerely appreciative of what they’ve done. It’s a huge step. I think everyone realizes that.”

The Africatown Welcome Center is pictured on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Mobile, Ala. At the time, the welcome center was housed in a mobile home across from the Old Plateau Cemetery. The new center will be located in the same spot, but it will be much larger (approximately 18,000 square feet) and serve as a tourist attraction. That project is being funded by RESTORE Act money. (Mike Kittrell/[email protected]­l.com)

No representative with the family was at the announcement and, despite talks with Stimpson, Meaher family members have yet to have any conversations with representatives of the Africatown community, including the descendants of the enslaved Africans aboard the Clotilda.

Clotilda descendants hope the discounted sale of the credit union building on Bay Bridge Road is the “first step” toward starting meaningful dialogue on future property sales. According to the city, the appraised value on the former credit union is $300,000.

“The Meaher family is as big of a part of this story as anyone,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants association, a descendant of Pollee Allen who was one of the Africatown community’s first leaders. “We need to have a dialogue with them. There is still property in Africatown they own that we want to talk about.”

Cleon Jones, an Africatown resident and community activist and former Major League Baseball All-star with the New York Mets, said the community is in a “forgiving mode” and does not blame Meaher’s descendants for the illegal voyage more than 160 years ago.

By 1860, the international slave trade had long been outlawed, but Meaher wagered he could import slaves despite the ban. He imported 110 captives Africans aboard the Clotilda, which led to his arrest. Meaher was eventually cleared of charges and historical accounts say he refused to provide land to the freed Africans after the Civil War.

More than 30 of those captive slaves founded their own community, later called Africatown.

“What we want to do is heal and move forward that benefits all of us,” said Jones. “I think that is the bottom line.”

He said the Meaher family owns “a major portion of land in Africatown” and the family “continues to flourish financially.”

Joe Womack, executive director of Africatown-C.H.E.S.S., an organization focused on making sure the community is “Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe and Sustainable,” said he believes the family’s holdings include 20-25 percent of property in the Africatown community.

He called the credit union building a “cornerstone” of the Meaher family’s properties within the community, and said he was surprised the city received it for $50,000.

“Whatever deal they worked out was fantastic,” Womack said, adding he would like to see the family sell off more property in the community to assist in rebuilding the community’s neighborhoods and to help aid in the revitalization efforts geared toward cultural heritage tourism, a rising segment of the tourism industry.

“It’s valuable property to the residents as far as getting people back in here,” said Womack. “(The Meaher property) has the possibility for building homes on. They own properties that (could be new) residential and that is the key.”

But talks of reparations, beyond discussions of future property sales, were not part of the active conversations on Thursday.

Jones, who starred for the New York Mets during the 1969 World Series, said no one should be blamed today for the atrocities that occurred generations ago.

“I am not responsible for what my grandfather did 40 or 50 years ago or even 100 years ago,” Jones said. “How are these people today responsible for what Timothy Meaher did at that time?”

The city’s purchase of the credit union was made possible through Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). The city will also supply equipment to get the food bank running within the next 90 days. The food bank’s operation will be in a partnership between the city, Feeding the Gulf Coast, Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church and the Africatown Community Development Corporation.

“This has been a food desert for a long period of time,” Stimpson said, who then credited a local church for providing food pantry services for the community. “If it wasn’t for the efforts of the Yorktown Baptist Church and Pastor Chris Williams, it would truly be a food desert. We hope this is the first step of many in making sure it’s no longer that.”

The newly-formed ARC will also be housed inside the building. The organization was created through legislative action this spring, and will include a nine-member board of directors that will be appointed in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, who sponsored legislation establishing ARC, said the group will have three main goals: Revitalize housing, preserve the community’s history and develop commerce.

“It has tall orders,” said Clarke. “Their major goal is revitalizing Africatown and focusing on housing first. That is the need.”

The Mobile County Commission, within the coming weeks, will be charged with paying for the maintenance improvements inside the building. A preliminary engineering assessment has already been conducted on the building, but no cost estimate was available Thursday.

Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said the “big-ticket” item will be replacing the building’s roof and heating and air condition system.

But Clarke said she was pleased that the building, overall, was in good condition.

“I think we can achieve the mission of having it open in 60 to 90 days,” she said.


The hunt for lost history

Several attempts to locate Clotilda’s remains have been made over the years, but the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is rife with sloughs, oxbows, and bayous, as well as scores of shipwrecks from more than three centuries of maritime activity. Then in January 2018 Ben Raines, a local journalist, reported that he had discovered the remains of a large wooden ship during an abnormally low tide. The AHC, which owns all abandoned ships in Alabama’s state waters, called in the archaeology firm Search, Inc., to investigate the hulk.

The vessel in question turned out to be another ship, but the false alarm focused national attention on the long-lost slaver. The incident also prompted the AHC to fund further research in partnership with the National Geographic Society and Search, Inc.

Researchers combed through hundreds of original sources from the period and analyzed records of more than 2,000 ships that were operating in the Gulf of Mexico during the late 1850s. They discovered that Clotilda was one of only five Gulf-built schooners then insured. Registration documents provided detailed descriptions of the schooner, including its construction and dimensions.

"Clotilda was an atypical, custom-built vessel," says maritime archaeologist James Delgado of Search, Inc. "There was only one Gulf-built schooner 86 feet long with a 23-foot beam and a six-foot, 11-inch hold, and that was Clotilda."

Records also noted that the schooner was built of southern yellow pine planking over white oak frames and was outfitted with a 13-foot-long centerboard that could be raised or lowered as needed to access shallow harbors.

Based on their research of possible locations, Delgado and Alabama state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn focused on a stretch of the Mobile River that had never been dredged. Deploying divers and an array of devices—a magnetometer for detecting metal objects, a side-scan sonar for locating structures on and above the river bottom, and a sub-bottom profiler for detecting objects buried beneath the mucky riverbed—they discovered a veritable graveyard of sunken ships.

Prior to the state survey, Raines continued his own search for the wreck, enlisting researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) to map the contours of the riverbed and detect any submerged objects. The USM survey revealed the presence of a wooden wreck bearing some hallmarks of a 19th-century vessel.

"The dimensions of the ship have not been determined yet,” Raines reported in June 2018. “It also remains unclear what type of vessel was found. Answering those questions will take a more thorough and invasive examination, precisely the expertise of Search, Inc."

Delgado’s team easily eliminated most of the potential wrecks: wrong size, metal hull, wrong type of wood. But the vessel Raines and the USM survey had highlighted stood out from the rest.

Over the next ten months, Delgado’s team analyzed the sunken vessel’s design and dimensions, the type of wood and metal used in its construction, and evidence that it had burned. It "matched everything on record about Clotilda," Delgado said.

Samples of wood recovered from Target 5 are white oak and southern yellow pine from the Gulf coast. The archaeologists also found the remains of a centerboard of the correct size.

Metal fasteners from its hull are made of hand-forged pig iron, the same type known to have been used on Clotilda. And there’s evidence that the hull was originally sheathed with copper, as was then common practice for oceangoing merchant vessels.

No nameplate or other inscribed artifacts conclusively identified the wreck, Delgado says, "but looking at the various pieces of evidence, you can reach a point beyond reasonable doubt."


‘Heritage House’ approved: Africatown museum to tell story of slave ship and community

The Africatown Welcome Center is pictured on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Mobile, Ala. At the time, the welcome center was housed in a mobile home across from the Old Plateau Cemetery. The new center will be located in the same spot, but it will be much larger (approximately 18,000 square feet) and serve as a tourist attraction. That project is being funded by RESTORE Act money. (Mike Kittrell/[email protected]­l.com)

Africatown’s story as a community founded by the survivors of the last slave ship to enter the United States will have a new showcase inside a “heritage house” that will be constructed within the heart of the north Mobile community.

A $1.3 million contract to build the approximately 5,000-square-foot Africatown Heritage House and an accompany memorial garden was approved by the Mobile County Commission Monday. The construction contract was awarded to Mobile-based Hughes Plumbing & Utility Contractors, which is operated by Preston Hughes III, son of one of the first African Americans to be licensed as a Master Plumber in Alabama.

The Heritage House, which is essentially a museum dedicated to telling Africatown’s complex story, is viewed as one of the earliest projects within a community that public officials and historians believe is primed for a renaissance following the 2019 discovery of the hull of the slave ship Clotilda.

“This is an exciting time,” Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “We know it’s taken a while to get there but we are almost there. We hope the entire community feels that this is their asset. The Africatown story is really a Mobile story.”

The project was made possible by an additional $700,000 in tax money that Ludgood diverted from her district’s capital improvement plan to pay for an uptick in construction costs. The overall costs are more than double the initial $600,000 cost estimate that was originally applied to the project.

Ludgood said the increase in the price for construction material and the addition of a memorial garden led to the higher price tag. The project is also being financed with $250,000 from the city of Mobile and $75,000 by the Alabama Power Foundation.

“I never thought (the overall costs) would be around $500,000,” said Ludgood. “I thought we’d be more in the $750,000 to $800,000 range. We are working in an environment right now where the costs of everything has gone through the roof. It’s happening on all our bids. Things are coming in higher than anticipated.”

She said no other projects had to be cut to accommodate the additional expense, noting that she had been waiting to save on a “big project” like the Heritage House.

“It was money that was already in that account, and I knew I had a big project out there waiting,” said Ludgood. “I did not obligate it for anything else.”

The Heritage House is viewed as among the early projects to kickstart tourism and research in and around Africatown after a hull of the slave ship Clotilda was discovered in 2019. Groundbreaking for the house adjacent to the Mobile County Training School – also founded by the descendants of the Clotilda – will take place within the next month. Construction is anticipated to wrap up by July, at which time the History Museum of Mobile will need about two weeks to install Clotilda artifacts and displays aimed at telling the community’s history. The Alabama Historical Commission, which is leading preservation efforts for the Clotilda, is also involved in the project.

Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, at the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Ludgood said the Heritage House could be open to the public by early August.

“This will be a place to go and see the story (of Africatown) including the (Clotilda) artifacts,” Ludgood said.

Anderson Flen, founder of the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation – an umbrella organization for the entire community when it comes to overseeing all aspects with the discovery of the Clotilda and the developments associated with telling Africatown’s story – said the Heritage House’s importance is that it represents a project that can be completed soon and “will help share the (community’s) story in a very positive way.”

“I think some people realize the potential,” said Flen. “It’s like telling a child that there is a party but until there is ice cream and cake, there is no party taking place. The entities benefitting from it need to see something. That community has been neglected for so long. Hopefully they will begin to see something.”

The Heritage House’s development is part of a heightened focus of a community that has struggled for decades with poverty and pollution from the neighboring industrial plants along the Mobile River.

The focus includes activity in recent weeks. Researchers with the University of South Alabama are currently examining land across from the Old Plateau Cemetery to assess whether any graves are on the site. The property is coveted for a future $3.95 million Welcome Center that is planned for construction within the next three years.

The Mobile City Council approved a $58,802 contract with USA to conduct the cultural resources study of the property that is expected to last 120 days. The property assessment will include, among other things, an oral history project that reviews its use before the 1940s.

Separately, a team of six professors with the Georgia-based Savannah College of Art and Design visited the community on Friday and met with local activists to discuss the history of the region as part of the development of an “immersive” water and land tour that could be offered to the public later this year. Teams of students and professors have interacted with Africatown community activists and others during Zoom meetings in recent weeks as part of an ongoing effort that will also include the production of a 15-20-minute documentary of Africatown. The documentary is expected to be wrapped up by late May.

Dave Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile, the tourism arm of the city, said it’s important that the community’s story is told in a factual way before tourism activity begins.

“We have to do this right,” said Dave Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile, the tourism arm for the city. “I think as long as the story script is accurate and it satisfies the Africatown (community) leadership and historians, that is the first element that has to be right before anything can start. Once the story is right, then everything can really begin.”

He added, “The story is the most time-consuming piece in getting the truth out and how you tell the story to different age groups. It has to be scripted to different age groups.”


FOUNDING FATHERS AND MOTHERS

The men found work in Mobile’s lumber and gunpowder mills and at the rail yards. The women grew vegetables and sold their produce door-to-door. To structure their recomposed community, they chose a chief, Gumpa (Peter Lee), a nobleman related to the king of Dahomey, and two judges, Charlie Lewis and Jabe Shade, who was an herbalist and a doctor. And, as any family would do, they reconnected with their shipmates, about 150 miles away in Dallas County.

Surviving on meager rations, they saved all they could, longing to return home, but it was not enough. So they settled on a new strategy, as Kossola explained to Meaher. “Captain Tim,” he said, “you brought us from our country where we had land and home. You made us slaves. Now we are free, without country, land, or home. Why don’t you give us a piece of this land and let us build for ourselves an African Town?” They were asking for reparations. Meaher was incensed.

Far from giving up, the community intensified its efforts and succeeded in buying land, including from the Meahers. Pooling their money, four families put down roots on seven acres known to this day as Lewis Quarters, named for Charlie Lewis. Two miles away, the largest settlement of 50 acres was nestled amid pine trees, cypresses, and junipers. As they would have done at home, the new landowners built their three dozen wood houses collectively. Surrounded by flowers, each had a vegetable garden and fruit trees. They later built a school and church. Old Landmark Baptist Church was adjacent to Abile and Kossola’s land and faced east toward Africa. Close by was their own graveyard. They called their hamlet African Town. Africa was where they wanted to be, but they were in Mobile to stay.

The progressive policies of Reconstruction helped freed people, but that was about to change. In the run-up to the 1874 congressional elections, the Mobile Daily Register called on whites to “answer to the roll call of white supremacy.”

Timothy Meaher had pressured the African men, who had been naturalized in 1868, to vote Democrat, the pro-slavery party. But he doubted they would, so on Election Day, he told the polling station clerks they were foreigners. Charlie, Pollee, and Cudjo were turned away. Meaher jumped on his horse and prevented them from voting at two other locations. The men walked to Mobile, five miles away. They were told to pay a dollar each, almost a full day’s wages, to vote. They did. Each received a piece of paper attesting he had voted. They kept them for decades.

Kêhounco and her husband, North Carolinian James Dennison, joined the first reparations movement. When James died, Kêhounco continued to petition for his Union Army military pension. In Dallas County, 72-year-old Matilda walked 15 miles to see the probate judge in Selma and inquire about compensation for Africans who had been torn from their homelands.

The Africans’ habit of standing up for their rights took a new turn in 1902. Kossola was hit by a train and badly hurt six months later, so was Gumpa. They sued the railroad companies. Gumpa passed away before his case was settled—his grandchildren received some money—and the following year, Cudjo Lewis v. the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company went to court. Despite expectations, the jury awarded him $650 ($19,000 in today’s dollars). But the L&N appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and won.

By the early 1900s, the shipmates had spent more time in America than in their homelands. Most had taken American surnames and converted to Christianity several married African Americans. They had adopted local ways while maintaining the cultures that they loved. The children, who went to school, grew up between these two worlds. Some American-born children spoke their parents’ languages Matilda interpreted for her mother. Each had an American name to use in the outside world, where they were often ostracized and called monkeys and savages. Their African name was for the extended family.

Helen Jackson, a granddaughter of Ossa Keeby, confided, “We were all one family. We were taught to call every other African our own age ‘cousin.’ We knew they were the same as us—and that we were all different from everyone else.” The children felt safe. “We had land, we had family,” said Olivette Howze, Abache’s great-granddaughter, in a 2003 newspaper article. “We lived well. I’m glad I was raised there.”

If their hometown was a nurturing haven, the African homelands were the idyllic places their mothers and fathers dreamed of. “They say it was good there,” recalled Eva Allen Jones, Kupollee’s daughter. “I seen them sit down and shed tears. I see my father and Uncle Cudjo weep and shed tears talking about going home.”

Kossola died in 1935, Redoshi the following year. Others may have lived a while longer. In slavery and freedom, from youth to adulthood, these men and women resisted oppression. They vigorously praised and defended their cultures, and passed on what they could to their children. Those who established African Town—which still exists—created a refuge from Americans, white and black. Their community adapted, but their success was clearly built on the fundamental African ethos of family and community first.

The people of the Clotilda endured the separation from loved ones, the Middle Passage, slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and for some, the Great Depression. They never recovered from the tragedy of their youth, but they preserved their dignity, unity, and pride in who they were and where they came from. Their story speaks of immense fortitude and accomplishments. But most of all, it speaks of irremediable loss. Several decades after stepping off the Clotilda, Ossa Keeby said, “I goes back to Africa every night, in my dreams.”


Marc Steiner

Host, The Marc Steiner Show

Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.


Inside Historic Africatown With Descendants of Slave Ship Clotilda

From left, Ruth Ballard, lifelong Africatown resident, Joycelyn Davis, Clotilda descendant of Charlie Lewis, and Darron Patterson, Clotilda descendant of Pollee Allen, are shown at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown on Friday, May 31, 2019, in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)
By Vickii Howell Special to the Birmingham Times

MOBILE, Ala.—For decades, a handful of ancestors and neighborhood historians held down the legends of Africatown’s founding, recalling the stories of kidnapped people ripped from Africa and forced to make a new home in a strange land.

Last month, the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) announced that a shipwreck discovered in the Mobile River Delta was almost certainly the Clotilda, a wooden vessel that carried 110 Africans to the United States in 1860, more than a half-century after the importation of slaves was declared illegal.

The finding of the slave ship replaced shame and doubt with pride and proof for ancestors and the remaining residents of the coastal community they founded—Africatown, USA, where the Africans settled when they were freed from slavery after the Civil War.

Here are stories from descendants of some who arrived in Mobile and from some current residents in Africatown, located three miles north of downtown Mobile, which had been formed by a group of 32 West Africans, who in 1860 were part of the last known illegal cargo of slaves to the United States.

The Descendants

“I got chills when I heard the [AHC] announce, ‘We found it,’” said Davis, a sixth-generation descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the Africans who arrived on the Clotilda.

Davis, 42, is the next in line as family historian, taking the baton from her aunt Lorna Woods, who for decades told the story of their ancestors to virtually anyone who would listen. Now they have the world’s attention. For the Lewis family and other Clotilda descendants who have quietly passed their stories down through generations, they have proof and now pride in a history that some of them used to shun, once ashamed to acknowledge slavery.

Some of those descendants are coming forward from the festival Davis organized to honor all the Clotilda Africans, not just Cudjoe Lewis, the most renowned among Africatown’s founders. His name and others are listed on a historical marker in front of Union Baptist Church.

“We are now organizing the descendants and meeting every Wednesday to make sure we are informed about what is happening with the Clotilda and to be sure we play an active role in what happens next,” Davis said.

“We want to get the word out there,” she added. “We want the world to know more about the complete story of the Clotilda and the survivors. We also want community revitalization, economic growth. That means the Africatown International Design Idea architectural competition that’s being planned—a new museum, the Africatown Blueway, whatever is done—we want it done the correct way, and we want the proceeds to revitalize the area.”

Davis organized the first annual Spirit of Our Ancestors festival in February to remember the survivors of the Clotilda, honor their families, and educate the public about the community built by the survivors when they were freed.

“I know a lot of people know about Cudjoe Lewis, but I want people to know more about [other survivors]: Charlie Lewis, Pollee Allen, Orsa Keeby, Peter Lee,” Davis said.

Clotilda’s last surviving African, Cudjoe Lewis, who died in 1935 was featured in the best-selling book “Barracoon” by the late Zora Neale Hurston, released last year.

The Clotilda find now cements the families’ stories, raising them from the level of folklore to historical facts. Those facts are still being uncovered as more descendants come forward, and as Africatown’s residents strive to maintain their physical place and its historical legacy in the face of benign neglect and industrial encroachment.

“Up to this point, it had been a question: ‘Was there really a boat?’ It wasn’t us saying that, but those who didn’t want there to be a boat,” said Patterson, a descendant of Clotilda survivor Pollee Allen. “But we knew it. We knew how we got here. Even though my side of the family didn’t tell me as much as the other families, I knew I was part of the 110” Africans who arrived on the Clotilda.

Patterson, 67, acknowledges that some in his family didn’t even want to talk about their history.

“I found out why,” he said. “Some of my folks just point-blank said, ‘I am not African,’ because they were more concerned about where we were going than where we came from. I think some of them were ashamed of how we got here, that they were treated like cattle, subhuman because of their African roots.”

Patterson has been taken out on the water’s edge to the place where the stolen Africans were disembarked in snake- and alligator-infested waters, in danger of wild animals at night while their captors hid them in darkness. Their kidnappers burned the ship to hide their crime because it was illegal in 1860 to transport Africans from their homeland for the purpose of slavery. Patterson said his ancestor and his shipmates “watched them burn the boat.”

“That had to be terrifying,” he said, “to watch the only thing you knew could get you back home being destroyed.”

Patterson said he would like to hear from the Meaher family, whose ancestor reportedly made a bet that he could secretly import Africans to America to become slaves.

“They should at least say something, … like, ‘We sincerely regret what happened with our relatives, that they stacked 110 men, women, and children on top of each other in unspeakable conditions,’” Patterson said.

Timothy Meaher, a wealthy river captain and plantation owner, reportedly made a bet in 1858 that he could bring 100 slaves from Africa and sneak them into the country, despite the 1808 federal law that made it illegal to import new slaves into the U.S. The legacy now, Patterson said, is making sure the children of the descendants fully embrace their history, all of it, even though their ancestors wanted to forget the past.

“That’s what Mobile County Training School was all about,” he said of the community school that produced some of the area’s strongest students, educators, and athletes. “We were taught to be men and women of character. [Our instructors] were more concerned about our future than how we got here.”

Mobile County Training School originally opened its doors in 1880 as a school—funded in part by Sears and Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald and renowned educator Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute—for the children of the freed slaves who arrived on the Clotilda.

The Residents

Ballard, 83, a lifelong resident of Africatown, said she is happy the Clotilda finding is bringing some sense of peace, contentment, and closure for the descendants. She plans to check her own DNA to see if she herself might be one.

“A lot of people have called me claiming to be descendants, wanting to know when they are going to get their money and land. I never realized how many descendants there were, considering how some wanted no part of being African. Now, they are direct descendants. It’s amazing,” she said with a laugh.

The current condition of her community is no laughing matter, though. Ballard, deeply concerned about potential environmental hazards, became an environmental activist with other current and former Africatown residents in a lawsuit over possible industrial contamination. She suspects that the heavy industries that have operated for decades in the area have had some role to play in the cancer that has ravaged her siblings, in a family with no prior history of the deadly disease, she said.

Ballard remembers that the mills discharged a soot that would leave brown spots on clean clothes hanging out to dry and corrode paint off of cars: “It was nothing nice,” she said.

When the mills closed, they took the community’s vibrancy with them. Young people graduated, went to the military, and never came back.

Ballard remembers an Africatown that was healthy and vibrant. Residents rarely needed to leave their community because it was self-sustaining. There were multiple grocery stores, a fish market, clothing stores, ice cream parlors, a movie theater, doctors’ offices, two post offices, and thousands of residents who worked at the nearby paper mills. She also hopes the Clotilda find will lead to community revitalization.

“If this becomes a tourist area, it would encourage them to clean up the area, fix some of the roads, and make some businesses want to locate here,” Ballard said. “I am interested in revitalizing the community. Yes, we need a museum. When tourists come in, where are they going to go? The story needs to be told, and it needs to be told accurately.”

Like Ballard, Anderson Flen grew up in Africatown. He fondly recalls a childhood when everyone helped each other a place where water was essential to life for fishing and drinking, where the Mobile County Training School and Union Baptist Church—founded by Cudjoe Lewis, Charlie Lewis, Peter Lee, Ossie Keeby, and other Clotilda Africans—were essential to community life.

Every space told a story, said Flen, 68, referring to the number of vacant lots in Africatown where houses used to be.

“You still have around here people who can tell you what that space represents, in terms of the people who lived there. And that’s what we have to do. You see, even though the house [is not there] we can fabricate a house to put there. More importantly, it’s about the story—and that’s what we’re here for. We can tell you where the oak trees used to be, where the china berry orchard and pecan orchards used to be.

“We can tell the stories of every individual around this whole community. We are walking storybooks about the community: all the churches, all the people, all the businesses, all those things. We can recreate those things in a very synergizing and energizing way.”

The history and legacy of Africatown is resonating on a global scale now, said Flen, president of the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association.

“It’s just a super time, when worldwide things are happening now to bring people together to make a difference. This is the epicenter of that timing because this is the last known destination of where the illegal slave trade took place.”

Flen said the find has led to healing among factions in Africatown that are now coming together because of the Clotilda’s significance.

“This time we are going to find people—in diverse areas and diverse ways—who will help us make it happen in terms of the revitalization of this community.”

As head of the nonprofit organization Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe, and Sustainable (CHESS), Womack, 68, has been at the forefront of the battle against what he sees as continued industrial encroachment in what is left of Africatown. He believes the Clotilda discovery offers new hope for tourism, which will be key in turning the community around.

“I look at this thing as a new beginning,” he said. “To me, it’s like one of the Greek gods saying, ‘Here, take this Clotilda and see what you can do with it.’ All of a sudden, the ship is here, and we weren’t expecting it. Now, we’ve got to make the best use of it.”

Womack feels the finding of the Clotilda can have the same impact on Africatown and Mobile that the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Museum, has had on the city of Montgomery since opening to the public on April 26, 2018. That impact was an estimated $1.1 billion.

“That’s billion, with a B. We should be able to top that easily, double it,” Womack said with confidence. “Whatever is done here, it’s got to be done right.”

For decades, men and women before him worked to create memorials, establish trade relations with Benin, the present-day country where the Africans were stolen from, and start other efforts to bring economic revitalization to Africatown through its history. Womack says, it’s his turn now.

“It’s my goal to make sure that the people who are going to get involved in creating memorials do this thing right because, you know, this is our last chance,” he said. “I can’t be sitting back and when it’s over say, ‘You didn’t do it right.’ Then that would be my fault, you know?”

Womack said he is finally seeing unity among different groups in the Africatown community, “because everybody has been trying to do something positive.”

“Some of us have a different way of wanting to try to get it done, and that’s where some of the differences come in,” he said. “Now, people look like they might be really willing to try something different and try something better because now they can see things working.”


Descendants from last US slave ship gathering in Alabama

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The years have been hard on Africatown USA.

Established by the last boatload of Africans abducted into slavery and shipped to the United States just before the Civil War, the coastal Alabama community now shows scarcely a trace of its founders.

Industrial development choked off access to the Mobile River and Chickasaw Creek, where generations caught crabs and fish. Factories now occupy land that once held modest homes surrounded by gardens, fruit trees and clucking chickens. The population has plummeted many of the remaining homes are boarded up and rotting.

But after years of watching the steady decline, descendants of the freed slaves who established Africatown are trying to create new ties and, perhaps, rebuild a community that’s in danger of fading away.

Relatives of the 110 people who were kidnapped in West Africa, shipped to the U.S. on a bet and sold into slavery are organizing a get-together called the “Spirit of Our Ancestors” festival, set for Feb. 9. Five families were involved in the initial planning, and organizer Joycelyn Davis said interest mushroomed once word got out.

She said people who once were ashamed to say their ancestors were sold into slavery are finding new pride in their heritage that could breathe new life into Africatown.

“I am so proud to say I am a descendant. That wasn’t a word that I used maybe 10, 15 years ago,” said Davis, 42, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis. “It was shameful as a child.”

Africatown’s founders were shipped to the United States on a wager rooted in antebellum obstinacy.

A U.S. law banning the importation of slaves had taken effect in 1808 — nearly two centuries after the enslavement of Africans began in North America — but smugglers continued plying the Atlantic with wooden ships full of people in chains. Cotton was booming in the South, and wealthy plantation owners needed hands to work the fields.

With Southern resentment of federal control near a peak, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, said historian Natalie S. Robertson. The schooner Clotilda sailed from Mobile to what is now Benin in western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous, weekslong voyage.

“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” said Robertson.

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile in 1860 and was quickly burned and scuttled in delta waters north of Mobile Bay.

The Africans spent the next five years as slaves, Robertson said, freed only after the war ended. Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, homes and vessels to purchase land from the Meaher family and settle Africatown USA.

“They resolved they would build their Africa in America,” said Robertson, who wrote the 2008 book “The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA Spirit of Our Ancestors.” She will speak at the gathering of descendants.

The group formed a self-sufficient society with a chief, a court system, churches and a school that became Mobile County Training School, where the festival will be held. Africatown’s peak population was estimated at more than 10,000. Today, lying about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) north of downtown Mobile, the unincorporated area has about 1,800 residents.

Meaher was charged with smuggling and faced a possible death penalty, but he was never prosecuted and his family remains prominent. A state park in Mobile bears the family name and Meaher Avenue runs through Africatown.

However, few signs of the original residents of Africatown remain — just graves and a chimney from the home of Peter Lee, or Gumpa, who was appointed chief after its founding.

In front of a church founded by the freed slaves sits a bust of Cudjo Lewis, who was the last surviving African from the last slave ship voyage to America when he died in 1935. Lewis, a distant uncle of Davis whose African name was Kazoola, was the subject the best-selling “Barracoon” by the late Zora Neale Hurston, released last year.

While Africatown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, plans to make it a major tourist attraction have gone nowhere.

The closest thing to a museum is a room at the school where Lorna Woods, a relative of Davis, sometimes shows off quilts, shackles and other items passed down through her family. A welcome center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and hasn’t been replaced two busts at the site were decapitated by vandals.

More than 240 Africatown residents are suing over allegations of industrial pollution involving an International Paper mill that closed nearly two decades ago, but a judge hasn’t ruled. Little has come of a city study that was released in 2016 with talk of redevelopment.

Displaying the Clotilda at Africatown could be a boost, but the burned remains of the ship haven’t been located.

Wreckage that some thought might be the Clotilda turned out last year to be from another vessel. Investigators in December scoured another, smaller wreck but said they haven’t determined whether it is the last slave ship.

The continuing search for the ship and plans for the upcoming gathering have created new interest among Africatown descendants, and area native Anderson Flen hopes something good will come of it all. Flen, 68, lives in Atlanta, but returns regularly to Africatown and maintains a home there.

“It gives us hope that this history will be sustained and improved upon and captured and passed on from generation to generation,” said Flen.


Descendants from last US slave ship gathering in Alabama

A chimney, the last remaining original structure from the days when survivors of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship brought into the United States, inhabited the area, stands in an abandoned lot in Africatown in Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. After years of watching the steady decline, descendants of the freed slaves who established Africatown are trying to create new ties and, perhaps, rebuild a community that’s in danger of fading away. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

MOBILE, Ala. – The years have been hard on Africatown USA.

Established by the last boatload of Africans abducted into slavery and shipped to the United States just before the Civil War, the coastal Alabama community now shows scarcely a trace of its founders.

Industrial development choked off access to the Mobile River and Chickasaw Creek, where generations caught crabs and fish. Factories now occupy land that once held modest homes surrounded by gardens, fruit trees and clucking chickens. The population has plummeted many of the remaining homes are boarded up and rotting.

But after years of watching the steady decline, descendants of the freed slaves who established Africatown are trying to create new ties and, perhaps, rebuild a community that's in danger of fading away.

Relatives of the 110 people who were kidnapped in West Africa, shipped to the U.S. on a bet and sold into slavery are organizing a get-together called the "Spirit of Our Ancestors" festival, set for Feb. 9. Five families were involved in the initial planning, and organizer Joycelyn Davis said interest mushroomed once word got out.

She said people who once were ashamed to say their ancestors were sold into slavery are finding new pride in their heritage that could breathe new life into Africatown.

"I am so proud to say I am a descendant. That wasn't a word that I used maybe 10, 15 years ago," said Davis, 42, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis. "It was shameful as a child."

Africatown's founders were shipped to the United States on a wager rooted in antebellum obstinacy.

A U.S. law banning the importation of slaves had taken effect in 1808 — nearly two centuries after the enslavement of Africans began in North America — but smugglers continued plying the Atlantic with wooden ships full of people in chains. Cotton was booming in the South, and wealthy plantation owners needed hands to work the fields.

With Southern resentment of federal control near a peak, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, said historian Natalie S. Robertson. The schooner Clotilda sailed from Mobile to what is now Benin in western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous, weekslong voyage.

"They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport," said Robertson.

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile in 1860 and was quickly burned and scuttled in delta waters north of Mobile Bay.

The Africans spent the next five years as slaves, Robertson said, freed only after the war ended. Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, homes and vessels to purchase land from the Meaher family and settle Africatown USA.

"They resolved they would build their Africa in America," said Robertson, who wrote the 2008 book "The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA Spirit of Our Ancestors." She will speak at the gathering of descendants.

The group formed a self-sufficient society with a chief, a court system, churches and a school that became Mobile County Training School, where the festival will be held. Africatown's peak population was estimated at more than 10,000. Today, lying about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) north of downtown Mobile, the unincorporated area has about 1,800 residents.

Meaher was charged with smuggling and faced a possible death penalty, but he was never prosecuted and his family remains prominent. A state park in Mobile bears the family name and Meaher Avenue runs through Africatown.

However, few signs of the original residents of Africatown remain — just graves and a chimney from the home of Peter Lee, or Gumpa, who was appointed chief after its founding.

In front of a church founded by the freed slaves sits a bust of Cudjo Lewis, who was the last surviving African from the last slave ship voyage to America when he died in 1935. Lewis, a distant uncle of Davis whose African name was Kazoola, was the subject the best-selling "Barracoon" by the late Zora Neale Hurston, released last year.

While Africatown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, plans to make it a major tourist attraction have gone nowhere.

The closest thing to a museum is a room at the school where Lorna Woods, a relative of Davis, sometimes shows off quilts, shackles and other items passed down through her family. A welcome center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and hasn't been replaced two busts at the site were decapitated by vandals.

More than 240 Africatown residents are suing over allegations of industrial pollution involving an International Paper mill that closed nearly two decades ago, but a judge hasn't ruled. Little has come of a city study that was released in 2016 with talk of redevelopment.

Displaying the Clotilda at Africatown could be a boost, but the burned remains of the ship haven't been located.

Wreckage that some thought might be the Clotilda turned out last year to be from another vessel. Investigators in December scoured another, smaller wreck but said they haven't determined whether it is the last slave ship.

The continuing search for the ship and plans for the upcoming gathering have created new interest among Africatown descendants, and area native Anderson Flen hopes something good will come of it all. Flen, 68, lives in Atlanta, but returns regularly to Africatown and maintains a home there.

"It gives us hope that this history will be sustained and improved upon and captured and passed on from generation to generation," said Flen.


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