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The hunt is on for the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S.

Archaeologists are analyzing data from a survey of Alabama’s Mobile River, looking for the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in America. The ship's survivors were enslaved for a few years before forming a unique community, Africatown. Clotilda descendants say its discovery would highlight their ancestors' story of strength and survival. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last year, archaeologists in Alabama combed a section of the Mobile River looking for the wreck of the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S. They're analyzing their findings now. If the ship is found, descendants of its survivors say it will help call attention to their ancestors' unique story of survival, and the lasting legacy of slavery in our nation. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has the story.

  • Lorna Woods:

    This is raw cotton. Real, raw cotton.

  • Megan Thompson:

    At a school on the northern edge of Mobile, Alabama, Lorna Gail Woods displays artifacts and photos of her ancestors. She loves to tell their story.

  • Lorna Woods:

    This is my granddaddy — great-great granddaddy Charlie.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In 1860, Woods' great-great grandfather Charlie Lewis was taken from what is now Benin in West Africa and forced into slavery. He came to America on a ship called the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in America.

  • Lorna Woods:

    The Clotilda came up through the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Megan Thompson:

    When Woods was a child, her mother told her stories about her ancestor's traumatic voyage.

  • Lorna Woods:

    They didn't know where they were goin' and where their destination was gonna end up, but somehow in the bottom of that boat, they were prayin' and chanting. And Mama said they could pull strength with each other from this experience they was havin'. Mama took that as a learnin' thing for us as children, to tell us never forget this story.

  • Megan Thompson:

    That Woods knows so much about her ancestry is rare. Slave ship manifests usually didn't include people's names and slave owners often recorded only a person's first name. But the story of the Clotilda and its survivors eventually became one of the best-documented accounts of Africans transported through the transatlantic slave trade.

  • 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. Clotilda basically took a sharp turn and went up that way, and somewhere up there was burned and sunk.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But the story of the Clotilda did not end there. Sylviane Diouf is a historian and author of a book about the people of the Clotilda: "Dreams of Africa in Alabama." She notes they spent only few years enslaved before they gained their freedom in 1865, when Mobile fell at the end of the Civil War. Many of them regrouped, wanting to return home to Africa.

  • Sylviane Diouf:

    And so they decided, you know, to pool their money together and try to find, you know, a ship to go back home. And then they realized they didn't have enough money.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So, Diouf says, they saved money, working in nearby mills and selling vegetables. By 1870, they were able to buy land north of Mobile, recreating a bit of Africa right there.

  • Sylviane Diouf:

    And so they actually named the settlement Africatown, which tells you who they were, who they wanted to remain, and where they actually wanted to be.

    The residents of Africatown, as it came to be known, built a church and a school. They elected a leader and set up a court system. And they taught their native languages to their children, trying to preserve some of the culture of the homeland they'd been violently forced to leave.

  • Sylviane Diouf:

    It's a unique community. There's nothing else like it, a community of Africans transported through the transatlantic slave trade.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Africatown still exists today. A mural commemorates the voyage of the Clotilda. The nearby graveyard contains graves and markers commemorating a few who arrived on the ship. The church they started still operates.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But the vibrancy of the community is long gone. The area — now part of Mobile — is surrounded by industrial sites. Its population has dropped from around 10,000 to around 2,000. A visitor center destroyed by Hurricane Katrina has not been rebuilt. Commemorative sculptures have been vandalized and gone unrepaired.

    Africatown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and there are some local efforts to promote and restore it. But Clotilda descendant Lorna Woods says there's never been enough money or political will to preserve the area the way it should be.

  • Lorna Woods:

    They struggled and made a life for us here in Mobile. But they never got the recognition they deserved.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So Woods fights to keep the story alive herself, giving talks and tours.

  • Lorna Woods:

    This is the last old house built by one of the Lewis children. Charlie Lewis's grandchild– grandson built this house by hand.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Recently, the stories of Africatown have started to receive more national recognition, thanks to some groundwork laid decades ago.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In the 1920s and '30s, legendary author Zora Neale Hurston conducted interviews with Cudjo Lewis, one of the Clotilda's last survivors. Hurston wrote a book, much of it in Lewis's own words and dialect, creating one of the few first-person accounts of the trauma of being kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery.

  • Audio Book:

    Soon we git in de ship dey make us lay down in de dark. We stay dere thirteen days. Dey doan give us much to eat. Me so thirst!

  • Megan Thompson:

    But publishers weren't interested during Hurston's lifetime. Only last year, nearly 60 years after her death, was her work finally published.

    Also last year, after strong winds pushed water levels to extreme lows in the Mobile River, a journalist for the Alabama news website 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.

  • James Delgado:

    Then there's also the fact that we took wood samples, and they came back as Douglas fir, saying, "Okay, this was built on the West Coast." Clotilda's built locally. And so it's step by step C.S.I. kinda work that archeologists do, that took us to that point of saying, "No, this is not Clotilda."

  • Megan Thompson:

    It was a disappointment. But interest in finding the Clotilda was stoked.

  • Clara Nobles:

    If we find the ship, it'd be fabulous.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Clara Nobles is the Assistant Director of the Alabama Historical Commission. It teamed up with Delgado's company, called Search, Inc., the National Geographic Society and other groups to do a full-scale assessment of a section of the Mobile River, to see what all lies beneath these muddy waters.

  • James Delgado:

    You can't see your hand in front of your face, so we use the sonar to get a clearer picture.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Delgado and his team also used magnetometers, which he describes as 'fancy metal detectors,' and something called a sub-bottom profiler to detect objects beneath the mud.

  • James Delgado:

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

  • Megan Thompson:

    Delgado is now analyzing the data to figure out what all they found. He says the bay and river are littered with shipwrecks — everything from barges to armored Civil War gunboats.

  • James Delgado:

    And perhaps somewhere in that graveyard, Clotilda might be found.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Clara Nobles says finding the Clotilda would be monumental but it's just one piece of a much more important story.

  • Clara Nobles:

    As we concentrate on the ship, I don't want us to forget about the people, because the story is the people, to me. These people that formed Africatown, after they came — on Clotilda, they were strong.

  • Lorna Woods:

    It would mean so, so very much to me.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Lorna Woods says a Clotilda discovery could ignite interest in Africatown and add another chapter to her ancestors' very important story.

  • Lorna Woods:

    By them finding the ship, that'll be the glue that sticks all of it together.

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