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How discovery of the slave ship Clotilda informs U.S. history

The remains of the last slave ship that came to America have been found. In 1860, the schooner Clotilda brought 110 Africans to U.S. shores, decades after it was illegal to import slaves into the country. The wreckage of the boat was discovered in Alabama’s Mobile River. Megan Thompson reports on the search for Clotilda, its history and the significance for the descendants of those slaves.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The remains of the last slave ship that came to America have been found.

    The schooner Clotilda brought 110 Africans to U.S. shores in 1860, decades after it was illegal to import slaves into the country. Those slaves were the last of an estimated 389,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860.

    The wreckage of the boat was found in Alabama's Mobile River.

    Megan Thompson has been reporting on the search, the history and the meaning of it for those slaves' descendants.

    Here's her latest report.

  • James Delgado:

    We are at the upper end of Mobile Bay. This is the route that Clotilda took on its illicit, illegal voyage to bring people here to Alabama to enslave them.

  • Megan Thompson:

    James Delgado is a historian and maritime archaeologist who has researched the history of this inlet on Alabama's southern coast. Delgado says Mobile Bay has been an important place for trade for centuries.

  • James Delgado:

    The trade that ultimately changes everything is cotton. By the time the Civil War breaks out, Mobile is exporting over half a million tons of cotton. It's the basis of the entire economy, not just for the Mobile area, not just for Alabama, but for the entire South.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In 1860, buying and selling slaves was still legal, and slave labor was in high demand. But importing slaves had been illegal for more than 50 years.

    A wealthy Mobile landowner named Timothy Meaher made a bet he could pull off an illegal run to Africa, where slaves were much cheaper than in America. Meaher paid Captain William Foster to sail the Clotilda to what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey. Foster purchased just over 100 slaves and returned to Alabama, sneaking into Mobile Bay, and then north into the Mobile River, under the cover of night.

  • James Delgado:

    The next part of the story — and we don't know much about it other than a few carefully chosen words by the perpetrators — "I then took my schooner and burned and sank it," says Captain Foster.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Last year, after strong winds pushed water levels to extreme lows in the Mobile River, a journalist for the Alabama news Web site AL.com found a shipwreck in the area where the Clotilda is believed to have been burned.

    Experts, including James Delgado, were called in. But Delgado says he could see right away the shipwreck was too big to be the Clotilda. Delgado and others knew they were close. The Alabama Historical Commission continued to team up with Delgado's company called SEARCH, Inc., the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Slave Wrecks Project to do a full-scale assessment of a section of the Mobile River.

    They found a better candidate beneath the muddy waters, as seen in this video from National Geographic.

  • James Delgado:

    There's one target in particular that stands out. It's roughly the same size as Clotilda, 86 feet long and 23 feet wide, according to its registration documents, frames of oak, as well as planks of southern yellow pine, fasteners all made of iron.

    We haven't seen a single fastener yet made of copper or brass. We have got a ship of the right size and what we think is the right place. At this stage where we're at, this could be Clotilda.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Yesterday, the team announced they had found the Clotilda.

    In Africatown, a small community in North Mobile of about 2,000 people, founded by slaves who came on Clotilda, it's a powerful moment for descendants and residents.

  • Man:

    We think that would be one of the most historic finds in America, not just in Africa. The whole story becomes life and becomes true.

  • Man:

    People get excited about the community to reveal it, to give it its prominence.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    And we will have the proof that we need to know that we were part of the history of Mobile.

  • Man:

    We need to tell it. We need to share it. We need to expose it to the world.

  • Megan Thompson:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Megan Thompson.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And our thanks again to Megan Thompson from "NewsHour Weekend" for that report.

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