Tucked along an unassuming stretch of land three miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama, is the modest neighborhood of Africatown, known in some circles as the town of Plateau. But peel back the veneer of seemingly everyday Mobilian life here, and this district holds something truly remarkable at its core: it exists at all because of the tenacity of 110 occupants of the Clotilda—the last slave ship to have entered America under the cloak of night.
As the story goes, in 1860, a wealthy landowner wagered that he could still smuggle slaves into the state—despite the United States having already banned the practice generations prior with the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, enacted in 1807. Evading Federal law, despite the threat of punishment by hanging, the man commissioned a captain and repurposed a lumber ship called the Clotilda for the long voyage to Africa.
Having successfully procured 110 men, women, and children—members of West African ethnic groups hailing from Nigeria, Benin and Togo—the now-infamous schooner made its way back to the brackish waters of Mobile in the dead of night to avoid the watchful eye of law enforcement. Upon landing, the men unloaded their captives on shore, then took the ship upriver where they set it on fire, ultimately sinking it. While federal prosecutors did open an investigation into the illicit event, the case was never brought to trial due to a lack of physical evidence, as well as increasing preoccupations with the imminent Civil War.
And so, the story of the Clotilda was shared in hushed whispers for nearly 160 years—many afraid to speak of it for generations. But what was once lore of the Old South is now irrefutable fact, as the long-buried Clotilda was finally located and verified in the Mobile River in 2019, thanks to the perseverance of the ship’s descendants, along with years of historical and archaeological investigations led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH, Inc.
Locating the schooner from the near-opaque depths of the northern Mobile Delta has humanized America’s shared history, giving credence to the stories long held throughout Africatown and beyond, while also bringing the important conversation out of the shadows.
“New information is continuing to emerge,” explains Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, himself the progeny of one of the ship’s captives. “My great, great grandfather Pollee [Allen] was a beekeeper, a woodworker. He was also a preacher. And for me, this is all new, because they never really told me anything before. I’m finding out people in my community knew things, but they were probably trying to protect me, because talking about Clotilda was a crime [for many years]. Since they found the ship, this is all fluid. Like a perfect storm, all coming together at one time.”
Indeed, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, and later the 13th Amendment, put an official end to slavery, a small group of little more than 30 Clotilda survivors worked tirelessly to buy their own piece of land back from the wealthy landowner who had first stolen them away from their familiar shores. Purchasing the land outright, they settled just outside of Mobile and formed the proud community of Africatown, a place they could finally call their own. Built on shared fortitude, this initial faction of the freed created an ecosystem of businesses, churches, and even their own schoolhouse.
“The school’s history was started in 1880 by descendants on the praying grounds of Union Baptist Church,” explains Anderson Flen, president of the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association, identifying two of Africatown’s most important institutions—its central congregation, and its hub of education. “In 1910, the school became part of the Mobile Public School system, and the school has served as an anchorpoint that holds and brings the community together.”
In fact, this was the first public high school for Blacks in all of Mobile. But the impact of Mobile County Training School has extended well beyond Africatown’s humble geographic bounds.
“The school’s visionary leaderships from 1910 until 1970 produced high school graduates who were in leadership roles at all the Black public high schools in Mobile at some point, instilling the ‘MCTS way’ in those schools,” continues Flen. “Many African Americans in Mobile recognize the importance of the school, and its history and its traditions. When it comes to Black education in Mobile, many young African Americans have a connecting relationship to the school even today, whether they know it or not.”
Just a 15-minute walk from the school campus—and in every way as integral to Africatown’s heritage—the Union Missionary Baptist Church is the beating heart of this community even today. Organized by survivors of the Clotilda in the late 1800s, the structure fell into disrepair before ultimately being rebuilt in 1918 and again in 1955—a physical symbol of the resilience of the Clotilda descendants over generations.
“That’s what the Yoruban culture means, and I’m proud to be Yoruban,” explains Patterson. “It means a lot to me that those people in the cargo hold were nothing to play with. They were no joke. What’s amazing to me is to think: [those behind the illegal Clotilda voyage] had this fast-sailing ship, and men with weapons, and they had control. But they didn’t know the most important people on that boat were the people in the cargo hold. The ship itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the spirit of those 110 people in that cargo hold, and how the spirit of the 110 overcame all the evil—how it still overcomes everything today.”
Outside the church, a bust of original Clotilda occupant Cudjo “Kazoola” Lewis still stands, a testament to one of Africatown’s original founders and community leaders who was also one of the ship’s last known survivors. It’s been shared that Cudjo and others had always wished to make it back to Africa. And so, the neighborhood’s Plateau Cemetery poignantly faces east toward their native land.
“There’s a reckoning going on in the world right now,” says Patterson. “We’re tired of being oppressed, and there’s a movement afoot for people who have been oppressed for so long. That gives me an enormous responsibility to do as much as I can right now, at this time when people are trying to airbrush history. Black history is American history.”
While history comes alive in seemingly every part of Africatown, the soon-to-open Africatown Heritage House Museum will be a cornerstone for those seeking to uncover and understand the long-buried secrets of the Clotilda. Having broken ground in February 2021, the modularly structured museum is slated to open later this year, and at the core of its total 5,000 square feet, it will feature a 2,500-square-foot exhibit courtesy of the History Museum of Mobile exploring the fateful ship and its modern-day descendants. Of particular note, actual pieces of the salvaged schooner will be on display.
“The Africatown community must learn, value, and celebrate its history,” says Flen. “Finding the Clotilda proves that the truth will always overcome untruth.” And indeed, the resolute community effort behind the new museum is designed to shine a light on the truth. It honors those aboard the vessel, their tireless work to forge a community along the Gulf shores over the course of many generations, and the modern community that has taken up the mantle in the years since.
While Africatown is very much a functioning—and thriving—community today, there are still traces of its painful history at every turn, always pointing back to the plight of its first inhabitants. And yet, these recent reminders of the ship’s historical impact have resurfaced at a true inflection point in America’s history, offering a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, and what is still ahead.
“And, who better?” asks Patterson. “Who better than the descendants of 110 Africans, forced into a cargo hold—20 by 27 by six high—to teach us? 162 years of effort just to let the world know that it wasn’t right. This is a whole big world out there, and this is what the world needs to know: you cannot sweep this stuff under the rug. We’ve all got to figure out a way to live together.