Last Updated on August 9, 2023
I had the extreme honor of attending the opening of the Africatown Heritage House museum and Clotilda exhibition contained within on July 7, 2023. The small building in the heart of the Africatown neighborhood immediately became a pilgrimage site for Black history, African American history and American History.
One hundred and sixty-three years is a long time when you want to forget. Not so when you want to remember. When you want to remember, it’s just a moment ago.
So it is for the descendants of Clotilda, the last known ship carrying enslaved Africans to America.
On July 8, 1860, 110 kidnapped West Africans were offloaded from the Clotilda in the Mobile River. On July 8, 2023, 163 years later to the day, the Africatown Heritage House and “Clotilda: The Exhibition” opened to the public in the heart of the community the ship’s survivors and their descendants founded, grew and sustained on the northern edge of Mobile, AL.
“One hundred and sixty-three years ago is not long ago,” Jeremy Ellis, President of Clotilda Descendants Association, told Forbes.com. “It may sound like it is, but when you look at when the last known survivor passed in (1940), that’s not long ago, and then the children of the survivors of that voyage, they were born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. They kept that story alive, and then their children. It’s not so far gone.”
Ellis was one of many Clotilda survivor descendants to preview the exhibition on July 6 before its public opening.
“I reminisced as I went through that exhibit and thought about 163 years ago to that date how they were in the Gulf of Mexico, had been on a voyage for 40-plus days, about to arrive to a foreign land. That alone lets me know that their presence is there,” he said.
From 110 survivors 163 years ago, the descendants remain remarkably connected to this day.
“That was established early on by the 32 founders of Africatown,” Altevese Rosario, Vice President of Clotilda Descendants Association, told Forbes.com. “They understood that all they had was each other. They were away from every thing. They had to learn a new life and to build a new life for themselves and their families and they knew that they could only do that by staying as one cohesive group. That was passed down from generation to generation.”
Wishing to return to their homes in Africa following the conclusion of the Civil War and emancipation, but unable to afford passage, a group of Clotilda survivors began purchasing tracts of land from the ship’s financier and his family, Timothy Meaher. May history curse the name. This story, of course, has villains along with heroes. The Meaher’s were villains. Slavers. The family enslaved many of the 110.
Mind you, Clotilda sailed 52 years after the international slave trade was outlawed in the United States in 1808. A robust domestic slave trade persisted in the South through the end of the Civil War, but importation of enslaved people had been prohibited. The 110 were smuggled.
“We knew that family wasn’t just the people that you are blood related to, but it’s everyone in your community, and that in order to thrive, you have to maintain cohesiveness,” Rosario added. “If one is elevated, then the collaborative is elevated. They knew that, they passed that down, and that was how we’ve been able to remain connected and be able to share such a deep cohesiveness that really does transcend blood, titles, and anything else.”
Visitors to Africatown and the Heritage House will feel that. The connection. That direct line to the 110. They built this. They lived here. Their presence.
It wasn’t so long ago.
“In the grand scheme of the world’s history, tens of thousands of years of human history, 163 years was just a minute ago,” Meg McCrummen Fowler, Director of the History Museum of Mobile, said during a dedication for the Africatown Heritage House. Her organization curated the Clotilda exhibition and will operate the Heritage House. “We are not far removed. The lives and legacies of the 110 are not distant and remote, they are present. This is the particular power of museum exhibits, and especially of historical objects—they have the ability to collapse the gaps of space and time, bringing us face-to-face with the past.”
America, by and large, has not wanted to face that past. The reality of its founding on stolen land and its building by enslaved labor.
“Let it go.”
“Leave it in the past.”
“That was so long ago.”
The villains of American history like the Meahers and the ship’s captain William Foster would love for you to fall for that trick, to allow the years to erase their barbarity and crimes. To escape the reckoning they have thus far mostly escaped.
The plantation owners across the South weren’t imprisoned or disposed of their land or power following their failed revolt and the hundreds of thousands of lives it cost. Meaher family descendants continue owning and profiting from land they own around Mobile. Driving into Mobile from the east, you’ll pass Meaher State Park.
To those who want to forget the past, 163 years is a long time ago.
Don’t fall for it.
As the descendants of the 110 will remind you, “it’s not so far gone.”
Critically, “Clotilda: The Exhibition” begins in Africa. Visitors are not initially greeted by the ship, but by a display of items from the cultures where the 110 called home.
“I was excited that (the exhibition) includes the West African culture because we have to remember that those men, women and children that were brought here, they were people that had occupations and (lives) prior to being captured and brought over via the Middle Passage,” Ellis said. “A lot of those stories just pay attention to American history, start with what happened during their time here in the United States.”
Africa centers this story.
When Africatown was founded in the 1870s, residents maintained their African identities, languages and customs. The churches, schools and businesses they built were based on what they knew from their homeland.
Remember, they only arrived in America in 1860. They were enslaved for five years after having been born and raised in Africa.
Most of the 110 were young. Teenagers or in their 20s.
The youngest, born Abake, later known as Matilda McCrear, survived the journey as a 2-year-old. Imagine. She was the last known survivor to pass in 1940.
Not so long ago.
This is the only community in America founded by Africans.
From the origin ethnic groups of the 110, the exhibition goes on to briefly background slavery in Alabama and the South and the interconnected trades in cotton and enslaved people. Here, the first ever model of Cotilda demonstrates how the ship was refitted after leaving Mobile to carry human cargo.
Visitors are then introduced to the word “barracoon.” A barracoon is a holding cell for the enslaved prior to their transport overseas.
The name was taken by famed ethnographer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston as the title of her first-person narrative account of one of the last Clotilda survivors, the man born Kossola who would come to be known as Cudjo Lewis. “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” was compiled from interviews conducted with Kussola by Hurston in 1927 at his home in Africatown.
Kossola would die eight years later in 1935.
Not so long ago.
Rosario is Kossola’s great, great, great granddaughter.
Of the countless tentacles to the story of the 110, Kossola and Hurston stand out. His spectacularly detailed accounts of life in Africa before capture, his harrowing capture by warriors and slavers from the Kingdom of Dahomey, modern day Benin, the barracoon, the appalling transport to Mobile and then life on American soil, as told to Hurston and shared by her in Kossola’s dialect, provide the most thorough account of the life of an African enslaved person in America to exist. Throughout the exhibit, Kossola’s words taken from “Barracoon” are shared in wall text and an audio tour.
“While our ancestors aren’t physically here, they’re spiritually here and they get to see what they always hoped for,” Rosario said. “Kossola especially, he was adamant in sharing his story and wanting as many people as possible to know of his story so that his legacy could be something grand.”
Hurston is an icon today, but she died penniless and unknown. The full text of “Barracoon” was only published in 2018, not so long ago. Only then, for the first time, did the world at large begin understanding the human side of the Clotilda story.
The exhibition places that human side front and center. Of the 110 survivors, 35 are known by name with ongoing research taking place to identify more individuals.
In a gallery dedicated to the founding of Africatown, a memorial lists each of the survivors by name, with “unknown” taking the place of those not yet identified. The voices of the survivor’s descendants are heard reading each name. Whenever a new name is identified, the mural will be updated and replaced.
While the publication of “Barracoon” shined a light on the 110, locating the wreckage of Clotilda in 2019 and the subsequent Netflix documentary focused on Africatown, “Descendant,” made global headlines.
Tens of thousands of ships carried enslaved people from Africa to North and South America. Fewer than 20 have ever been found.
Miraculously, the wreckage remains largely intact due to a variety of unusual marine conditions. This, despite Foster setting Clotilda ablaze after the 110 were unloaded to hide evidence of his and Maeher’s crime.
A fascinating archaeological story can be told here, but as Joycelyn Davis, descendant of Osia, Charlie Lewis, is quoted as powerfully stating in the documentary, “it’s not about the ship, it’s about the people.”
The exhibition never loses sight of that.
And it’s not only about these people, the 110 and their descendants. A broader story can be told here, one that inspired Merceria Ludgood, a tireless activist on behalf of Africatown for decades. Consider her the engine behind the realization of Africatown Heritage House. She is now the Mobile County Commissioner for District 1 which includes Africatown.
“I’m not a descendant of the Clotilda, but I’m from some ship and so for me it’s a universal story,” she told Forbes.com.
“While the nuances are unique to us, the overall story is the same for nearly every Black American. At some point, their ancestor was taken from somewhere, they were enslaved, and then, prayerfully, had to live a life hopefully beyond slavery, even in the midst of slavery,” Rosario said. “That doesn’t demean you, that doesn’t dehumanize you, you are still the great person that is inside of you. Learn of who that is, encourage others to learn of who that is, teach your children who they are and to be proud of who they are and to not be ashamed and to understand what their narrative is and what it can be moving forward.”
In that way, the Africatown Heritage House and the Clotilda exhibition are not even about the past, they’re about the future. An Africatown Welcome Center is in the design stages. The building will dwarf the Heritage House in scale and budget. Hurston’s book, “Descendants,” and the new museum will make millions aware of this remarkable story, hopefully encouraging them to visit.
What visitors to Africatown and the museum see will be eye opening. Not just inside.
Outside, in Africatown, no one holds any misconceptions about the neighborhood.
“My hope is that there are far more eyes on the community, and not just in the state, in this part of the United States, but across the world, that others get to come and see the beauty and the brilliance that is still here in this community, that still remains, and then that they also see the blight, that they see the struggle, and then that invokes them to say, ‘what can I do to help this community,’” Rosario said.
Africatown is not a paradise. It hasn’t escaped the pitfalls experienced by Black majority communities around the nation.
“Descendants” terms the neighborhood a “sacrifice zone” to the heavy industry which surrounds it. Lumber. Chemicals. Shipping. Waste. Africatown is also a story of environmental racism, environmental justice, racism in zoning.
“I’m hoping (the Heritage House and exhibition) will spark investment, that people will come into the community, look around, see what it needs and people who can invest will walk away saying, ‘what can I do to make this community better, to help improve the quality of life for people who live there,’” Ludgood said. “It’s rebuilding Africatown from the inside out, starting with the people, taking care of their needs. You if you look around, you know, they need housing, we need funding for rehab, and all of that is pricey, but I believe that we have a compelling story that could attract investors here.”
Visitor’s to Africatown will enjoy taking one of five certified historical tours of the area, including Joycelyn Davis’ in conjunction with Africatown Freedom Tours. The others are “Africatown, Return to Culture Tour,” “Africkytown Ebi Tours,” and “What You Say!” An additional Black history tour covers Mobile more generally.
Along with “Descendants,” another documentary, “Clotilda: the Last American Slave Ship” can be seen on Disney+.
A variety of books related to Clotilda and the 110 are available online and in the Africatown Heritage House giftshop. “Barracoon” is available as an audio book which will help many work through the dialect the account is written in.