In 1808, Congress banned the importation of enslaved individuals—but the new law didn’t stop white smugglers from continuing to transport captives from Africa to America. One of those smugglers was Timothy Meaher, an Alabama businessman who supposedly made a bet that he could sneak an illegal slave ship into the country without getting caught. In July 1860, the Clotilda, sailed into Alabama’s Mobile Bay under the cover of darkness. On board, 110 enslaved men, women and children taken from West Africa awaited their fate.
William Foster, whom Meaher had hired to captain the schooner, offloaded the victims, set fire to the ship and deliberately sank it to the bottom of the Mobile River. After years of speculation, archaeologists identified the ship in 2019 and have been painstakingly unraveling its many mysteries ever since.
Now, a new exhibition will help share the story of the Clotilda and its aftermath. On July 8—the anniversary of the ship’s arrival—“Clotilda: The Exhibition” opened inside the new, $1.3 million Africatown Heritage House, located a few miles north of downtown Mobile.
Using artifacts recovered from the sunken vessel, documents and text panels, the exhibition focuses primarily on the individuals on board the Clotilda, highlighting “their individuality, their perseverance and the extraordinary community they established,” per the City of Mobile.
The 2,500-square-foot exhibition is the result of a partnership between descendants of the Clotilda—many of whom still live nearby—and other community members, the City of Mobile, the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile County Commission and the Alabama Historical Commission.
After landing in Alabama, many of the Clotilda’s captives went to Meaher, who had financed the operation, while a few went to Foster and several others; the rest were sold. When the Civil War ended in 1865, five years after the Clotilda’s arrival, the survivors banded together to buy some land and create a new settlement nearby. They called it Africatown in homage to their homeland.
“They understood that all they had was each other,” says Altevese Rosario, vice president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, to Forbes’ Chadd Scott. “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.”
The new exhibition spotlights some of the individuals who were forced to make the 45-day voyage to America in 1860, reports AL.com’s John Sharp. One such person was Matilda McCrear, who was the last known survivor of the Clotilda when she died in 1940. Another is Cudjo Lewis, whose 1920s interviews with Zora Neale Hurston helped inform what historians know about the Clotilda today. Lewis died at around age 94 in 1935.
“Clotilda: The Exhibition” showcases the survivors’ “courage, resiliency, and tells their individual stories,” as Jeremy Ellis, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association and himself a descendent of two enslaved individuals on board the Clotilda, Pollee and Rose Allen, tells AL.com.
“It’s something I haven’t seen, and it’s amazing,” he adds.
In recent years, members of the descendant community have approached the newfound attention with caution. While they’re excited to see the ship’s story spread, they’re also worried about retaining control of their history.
“I don’t want it to be a story just for the sake of a story,” Veda Tunstall, another descendant of Pollee and Rose Allen, told Smithsonian magazine’s Ellen Wexler last year. “I’m happy that the story is becoming widely known, but I want to see it actually amount to something.”
The team behind the new Africatown Heritage House hopes the exhibition is just the beginning, and that museum-goers will be inspired to dig even deeper into the Clotilda’s ongoing legacy and take steps to support the Africatown community today.
“We want to be the first stop,” says Meg Fowler, director of the History Museum of Mobile, to the Points Guy’s Tarah Chieffi. “Once people learn about Africatown, we can connect them with other resources to help with ongoing education and support of the community.”
Editor’s note, July 20, 2023: This story has been updated to clarify the role Timothy Meaher played in the Clotilda affair.