Slave shipwreck spurs revitalization and hope in Alabama

Three years ago, the shipwreck of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S., was found near Mobile, Alabama. Archeologists are now learning details about the horrific journey endured by its captives. Clotilda descendants hope the new attention will help revitalize their long-neglected community and spread their ancestors' story of strength and resilience. Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last weekend in Mobile, Alabama, there was a family reunion of sorts. Many of the people there were descendants of West Africans who were sold into slavery and forced to come to the U.S. on the very last slave ship in 1860.

    We first brought you the story of the Clotilda three years ago, when the hunt was on to find its wreck.

    In the first of a three-part series on confronting the legacy of slavery and racism in Alabama, Special Correspondent Megan Thompson traveled to Mobile to follow up on that search, and those working to revive the story of Clotilda's survivors — and the long-neglected community they founded.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    This is raw cotton, real, raw cotton.

  • Megan Thompson:

    When we first visited lorna gail woods three years ago… she showed us her collection of artifacts and photos on display at a school on the northern edge of Mobile, Alabama.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    This is my granddaddy– great-great granddaddy, Charlie.

    In 1860, Woods' great-great grandfather Charlie Lewis was captured in West Africa and forced onto a ship called the Clotilda. It was the last known slave ship to arrive in America.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    Somehow, in the bottom of that boat, they were prayin' and chanting.

  • Megan Thompson:

    That Woods knows so much about her ancestry is unusual. Detailed records about enslaved people were scarce and names were often changed. But the story of the Clotilda and its survivors eventually became one of the best-documented accounts of the Transatlantic slave trade.

  • Jim Delgado:

    We are at the upper end of Mobile Bay.

  • Megan Thompson:

    James Delgado is a historian and maritime archeologist. While the story of Clotilda had survived…the ship itself had been lost.

  • Jim Delgado:

    This is the route that Clotilda took on its illicit, illegal voyage.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In 1860, slavery was still legal in Alabama. But importing new slaves was banned. Wealthy mobile landowner Timothy Meaher made a bet he could pull off an illegal run to Africa. He paid Captain William Foster to sail to what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey – today Benin. He forced 110 captives onto the boat, then sailed back, sneaking into the Mobile River under the cover of night. Foster took notes about it all.

  • Jim Delgado:

    "I then took my schooner and burned and sank it," says Captain Foster. Clotilda basically took a sharp turn and went up that way, and somewhere up there was burned and sunk.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But the extraordinary story didn't end there. After emancipation a few years later, some Clotilda survivors regrouped and formed their own community near Mobile. It came to be called "Africatown." They built a church and a school. Elected a leader and had their own court system. It grew to be a vibrant, bustling community of more than 10,000 people. Today, Africatown is a shadow of its former self. The area is surrounded by industrial sites. Its population has dropped to around 2,000… and many of the Clotilda descendants have moved away. Three years ago, we saw a visitor center destroyed by Hurricane Katrina that hadn't been rebuilt. Commemorative sculptures vandalized. Empty lots and abandoned properties.

  • Cleon Jones:

    We've been the stepchild, so to speak.

  • Megan Thompson:

    With little outside help, resident Cleon Jones has been on a one-man mission for years to keep up the area. Born and raised in Africatown, Jones went on to become a star baseball player for the New York Mets, catching the final out of the 1969 World Series. After retiring, he came home.

  • Cleon Jones:

    You know we grew up together! When you're talking about me, you're talking about yourself.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Jones is not a Clotilda descendant – his family was here before the ship arrived, he says – but its legacy is important to him.

  • Cleon Jones:

    I also knew that the ship was part of us because it was part of the community. It's always been dear to my heart.

  • Cleon Jones:

    On a daily basis, we try to spruce up the community…

  • Megan Thompson:

    So Jones has dedicated his time to bringing the area back. Fixing the signage, caring for lawns and restoring homes. At the same time, Lorna Gail Woods, one of just a few speaking up for the Clotilda descendants, lamented the lack of political will to do more.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    They struggled and made a life for us here in Mobile. But they never got the recognition they deserved. By them finding the ship, that'll be the glue that sticks all of it together

  • Megan Thompson:

    Meanwhile, the hunt for the ship had already begun. In 2018, strong winds pushed water levels to extreme lows in the mobile river. Journalist Ben Raines began exploring the area where the Clotilda was thought to have been burned…and discovered several shipwrecks. Experts were called in to investigate the muddy waters, including National Geographic and James Delgado's company, SEARCH, Inc.

  • James Delgado:

    We're diving and mapping things by feel. In some cases, we're taking wood samples to understand if it's– if it's a wooden ship, what it's built of.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And then, in May 2019, Delgado and his team made their announcement.

  • James Delgado:

    Yes, it is the Clotilda!

  • Megan Thompson:

    The discovery sparked intense interest in the Clotilda and Africatown, and thrilled descendants.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    I was very happy, 'cause now we have the conclusion that we needed to the story.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Last month, we caught up again with James Delgado, who explained how he identified the Clotilda. He says the wreck was the correct size and shape, and made from the right type of wood.

  • Jim Delgado:

    These are planks from off of Clotilda's hull, and they were important evidence because species identification matched exactly with what we knew Clotilda'd been built with. Iron fasteners used to hold Clotilda together with a bit of wood left. And what we see here with this saddling, this form of burning around this. And this was powerful forensic evidence of this ship having been burned.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Only a handful of slave shipswrecks have ever been found. And, Delgado says, the Clotilda is the only one lost during the slave trade that's survived more or less intact. And it's revealing stark and disturbing details unknown before.

  • Jim Delgado:

    This is the bow. The stern is back here and still buried at this point.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Delgado identified what looks like a temporary wall, not part of the original ship.

  • Jim Delgado:

    And what that says to me is that this was added by Foster to create a smaller cell. This is the area in which the captives were confined. It's the size of a one-room apartment. It's not much bigger than the space I'm sitting in now. Eighteen by twenty three feet and about five and a half feet high.And that's where 110 people are kept for 40 days with no access to a facility other than a bucket at best.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The site was put on the National Register of Historic Places last year. Delgado says it's too soon to tell if the boat is in good enough condition to be raised from the water. He plans to return this spring for a more thorough excavation.

  • Jim Delgado:

    It's possible – a hypothesis is – that we might be able to recover DNA that comes from bodily fluids being splashed on planks or collecting in the spaces below in the hold and has been preserved in the mud.

  • Darron Patterson:

    The truth is, Clotilda exists. Been found. There's proof of a crime, and evidence of a crime that happened.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Darron Patterson is the president of the new Clotilda Descendants' Association. His ancestor was Pollee Allen, whose African name was Kupollee.

  • Darron Patterson:

    We'd like to get it out of the water. Put it on display. But here's the thing about it. The ship is a vessel. But it's not nearly as important as those 110 people in the cargo hold.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Since the Clotilda was found, would you say interest in all this has grown?

  • Darron Patterson:

    Exponentially.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The Descendants' Association now has more than 40 members. One hundred more have applied to join. And last weekend, it held a festival in africatown. A chance for descendants to reunite and honor their ancestors.

  • Woman:

    Ashay!

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    And with us having the festival today, we are doing everything we can to perpetuate the history of Africatown.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A new play also debuted, depicting the horrors of the Clotilda voyage and the strength and resilience of its survivors.

  • Actor:

    But, we were not broken.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's the latest in a series of new Clotilda portrayals since the ship was found. Books have been written, songs composed, a documentary just premiered at the sundance film festival, and a new national geographic film began streaming on hulu and disney plus this month. Cleon Jones says all this attention is nice. But will it translate into help for the people of Africatown?

  • Cleon Jones:

    Well, it's a beautiful story. But it hasn't helped our community, so therein lies the problem. Let's make sure that we resurrect the saga, but at the same time, let's rebuild and restore our community.

  • Megan Thompson:

    New restoration has begun…to the tune of millions of dollars from the city, county, state and private corporations. There are plans to finally rebuild that welcome center. And a new history museum is slated to open this summer.

  • Lorna Gail Woods:

    That's going to be a place that we can brag about. And say, oh, we got a museum in a little place called Africatown.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A half-mile away, an old building will be torn down and replaced with a food bank, business center and offices for the brand new Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, which will oversee revitalization. And the county is now pitching in on the work to restore homes, alongside Cleon Jones.

  • Cleon Jones:

    This house, we did a new roof on it, new paint job. We're putting life back into the community. So that's progress.

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