Exploring the Clotilda, the last known slave ship in the US, brings hope – NPR News

Vernetta Henson sits outside the Union Baptist Church in Africatown. The church was founded in 1869 by survivors of Clotilda. To her left is the bust of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the founders of the community.


MOBILE, Ala. Juneteenth has long held special significance for the descendants of the last slave ship known to come to the United States, the Clotilda. People like Vernetta Henson and Darron Patterson of Mobile, Ala.

They are descendants of Polee and Rose Allen, who were among more than 100 kidnapped Africans who smuggled a wealthy plantation owner in Alabama Mobile aboard the Clotilda 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, then sank the ship. to prove the crime.

Since the shipwreck was found three years ago, there has been a new focus on the Clotilda survivors and the community they founded after emancipation.

Henson leads tours of the area just north of downtown Mobile.

“You’re officially in Africatown,” she says.

It is bordered on one side by railway lines and on the other three by water.

She points to an empty shop window and where a hotel once stood. There is no trade here anymore – only heavy industry and a busy highway right through the center of the district.

A cemetery is on a hill near the highway, headstones facing east toward Africa.

Henson’s great-great-grandparents – Polee and Rose Allen – were captured in Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa and taken to the US in 1860 on the slave ship Clotilda. They were liberated by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War and were helped to find Africa City.

They never made it

“I’m going to show you some of the shotgun houses they built,” she says. “They were trying to get close to the water. They felt like they could use that water and go back home.”

Back home in Africa. But they never made it, instead preserving the language and traditions of their homeland in a self-governed enclave of family homes in an area of ​​about five miles.

Henson, who is 73, says Africatown was a vibrant community of more than 10,000 people when she was young. Today there are less than 2,000 inhabitants. And many houses are abandoned and boarded up, with years of neglect.

New research has been conducted into what has become of Africatown since journalist Ben Raines discovered the Clotilda in the Mobile River in 2019. Work is underway to preserve it as an important artifact of American history.

“It’s the only known slave ship in American waters,” said Alabama state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn.

And the wooden schooner is proof.

“This was a crime,” she says. “It has been illegal to import slaves since the early 1800s.”

It’s still there and it’s quite amazing

She says the Clotilda Passage is the latest recorded incident of people bringing slaves to the United States.

“And then we have the ship and it’s in a fragile state, but the vast majority of it is still there and it’s pretty amazing,” Hathorn says.

The story goes that on a wager, plantation owner and shipbuilder Timothy Meaher hired a captain to bring kidnapped Africans to Mobile, even though the Atlantic slave trade was illegal. With federal prosecutors after her, the Clotilda was pushed up the river and set on fire to hide evidence of the voyage. But the muddy waters preserved the ship for 150 years.

Archaeologists got their first full look at it during a research field trip in May, funded by a $1 million dollar grant from the state of Alabama.

“The most important thing we learned is that it’s in at least two pieces,” Hathorn says.

Part of the stern has broken off and is covered in mud. Researchers used sonar to map the ship’s position, collected samples and monitor river flows. It’s all part of an effort by the Alabama Historical Commission to determine the feasibility of raising the ship.

“It would be very irresponsible to destroy it while we’re trying to preserve it,” Hathorn says.

Divers were able to unearth some artifacts, including a piece of deck and a cast iron steering mechanism with a piece of rope attached. Those artifacts are now kept at the History Museum of Mobile and will eventually be on display at the Heritage House Museum – a new facility under construction in Africatown that will tell the story of the Clotilda.

It is one of the many developments surrounding this history.

For example, construction has begun on a federally recognized Blueway along Africatown’s waterfront. And the Clotilda is the subject of new movies and a song by blues singer Shemekia Copeland called “Clotilda’s On Fire”.

“People still come from miles around to praise the people of Africatown who rose from the ashes of a sad history to be unleashed, proud and free,” she sings.

“We want to return this community to its rightful place in history,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association.

He says that Mobile’s slave history has been hidden for too long. Patterson is the great-great-grandson of Polee Allen. But growing up, his family kept that heritage a secret, fearing it was too dangerous to talk about. In part, he says, because the wealthy descendants of slave trader Timothy Meaher remained powerful and owned much of the land in and around Africatown. And they still do.

Dig deeper to embrace slave history

Patterson says people want to come here to embrace the Clotilda story.

“There is a [racial] reckoning is going on in the world,” he says. “And who better to be at the forefront of that discussion than the voice of the Clotilda descendants?”

He thinks that with the right investment, Africatown could be as much of a pull for Mobile as the tourism boom Montgomery experienced with the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Memorial, which commemorates the thousands of lynching victims.

“Charleston has embraced his slave history. Savannah has embraced its slave history. Montgomery, Ala. has embraced its slave history,” says Patterson. “We have the same opportunity here.”

While pushing for public investment, Clotilda descendants also dig deeper into their heritage, finding inspiration in the resilience of the Clotilda survivors.

Genealogist Lew Toulmin has worked with the group.

“You might find it a little odd that a white man whose ancestors were slave owners and who fought vigorously for the Confederacy would be so interested in black genealogy,” he says. “But I don’t really see it as a contradiction.”

Toulmin is a retired policy advisor in Maryland but originally from Mobile. His family founded the town of Toulminville not far from Africatown. He says that he had never heard of the Clotilda as a child, but that he wants to reinforce the story today.

“Because we now know better,” says Toulmin. “I think it helps me and anyone who would read my stuff [to] understand some of the horrors these people enslaved.”

The Keeper of the Flame

Toulmin hopes his work can help promote reconciliation

He recently hooked up with Vernetta Henson over a video phone call to compare notes about what they discovered.

“She’s the keeper of the flame,” Toulmin says.

Vernetta Henson has collected dozens of obituaries, documents that Toulmin uses to create family trees and document the lives of the Clotilda survivors.

After emancipation, the settlers of Africatown continued to work for the Meaher family who enslaved them and used their wages to acquire land and timber to build houses and plant farms.

“They had to figure out a way to survive instead of living,” Henson says. “That was their main function of learning to survive.”

Toulmin helped Henson tell the story of her great-great-grandfather Polee Allen’s influence.

“He bought two acres early on and built his own house with his own hands, but with the help of other people,” says Toulmin.

He has found evidence that the men who settled in Africatown worked together to build each other’s homes. Polee Allen was also an ambitious farmer.

“He grew onions, garlic, pears, plums, apples, figs, scuppernong grapes, peanuts, watermelons, cantaloupes, bananas and okra,” says Toulmin. “And he also raised bees for honey and kept chickens, cows, pigs and horses.”

Learning all this fills Henson with a sense of pride.

“Golly, we had a really big family that contributed a lot to the American dream.”

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