Written by Richard Fausset
Like nearly everyone who grew up in Africatown, Felice Harris had heard the origin story of her little Alabama neighborhood, passed around from relative to relative and house to house.
It was the story of a group of West Africans carried to Alabama on the last slave ship to reach the United States. After the Civil War, they established and governed a thriving community of their own.
Harris, a retired kindergarten teacher, knew that the story of the ship and its human cargo was well documented by historians, and she told it to her students each year. But she occasionally wondered how much myth had seeped into the history — because the ship, which was said to have been burned and sunk in the waters nearby, had never been found.
Last week, all such doubts evaporated. A team of researchers confirmed that a submerged wooden wreck lodged in the mud a few miles up the Mobile River from the Africatown settlement was almost certainly the Clotilda, the schooner that had carried the 110 kidnapped Africans to Alabama from what is now the nation of Benin in 1860.
Historians lauded the discovery as a crucial missing piece of the broader American story. In Africatown, a semi-isolated clutch of cottages 3 miles north of downtown Mobile, the news carried a particular kind of heft. Something physical, something measurable, was now attached to the tale they had heard all their lives.
“Now it’s like letting us know that it’s really real,” said Harris, 58. “It’s real.”
While it is too soon to say whether the Clotilda will be raised or restored — and if it is, where exactly it will go — the people of Africatown are already dreaming that the ship’s bones will reside with them, serving as a key not only to the past but to the future, attracting tourists and sparking a much-needed renaissance.
“We think it could be something like Jamestown,” said Joe Womack, 68, referring to the early Colonial settlement and tourist draw in Virginia. “Jamestown and Africatown.”
The story of Clotilda’s final voyage began with an Alabama plantation and steamboat owner, Timothy Meaher. As tensions between North and South approached a breaking point before the Civil War, Meaher made a wager that he could bring enslaved Africans to the heart of American cotton country despite a federal ban on importation that had been in effect since 1808. The bet grew out of an argument among passengers on one of Meaher’s steamships over whether transporting enslaved people from Africa to the United States was still possible.
The stakes were high: Such smuggling was punishable by hanging. To avoid detection, the captain of the schooner, William Foster, set the vessel ablaze and sank it after its human cargo was unloaded.
The captives were men, women and children from multiple cultures who spoke multiple languages. They had endured a trans-Atlantic voyage of 45 days, during which they had been stripped of clothing and given only meager daily sips of water, according to “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” a book on the subject by the historian Sylviane Anna Diouf. Some of the captives were sold upriver. Meaher and his family kept 60 of them.
They were in a country that was home to 3.9 million slaves, according to 1860 census figures. In Alabama alone, there were more than 435,000 slaves. The free labor they provided made the state one of the most prodigious cotton producers in the South, where many politicians viewed slavery as a matter to be left up to individual states.
In recent decades, the community they eventually founded has suffered steep economic decline. Several nearby mills and industrial plants have died off, including a paper plant that employed hundreds of local people. A self-contained commercial network died with them. Grocery stores, beauty shops, a fish market, service station and fruit stand — all are gone.
“We’re a food desert,” said Cleon Jones, 76, the former New York Mets outfielder who grew up in Africatown and returned in the 1970s after helping lead the team to its storied 1969 World Series victory. He now serves as a kind of unofficial mayor.
The management and guardianship of what remains of the Clotilda now falls to the state of Alabama. The ship is still fully submerged upriver, near a place called Twelvemile Island. On Thursday, the day after state officials announced that the ship had been identified, Ben Raines, the documentarian and former journalist who found it, headed toward the island in his motorboat, following the Clotilda’s final path.
Raines, 49, the son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times, announced in January 2018 that he may have discovered the Clotilda. He turned out to be wrong that time, and the story became a source of embarrassment for him. But some of the friends he had made in Africatown during his expeditions urged him to not to quit the search.
Thelma Maiben-Owens, 66, director of a community garden in Africatown, put the words of old an church song in his ear: “There’s a bright side somewhere. Don’t you stop until you find it.”
Many of the men and women left on the shore by Foster had hoped to return to Africa at the end of the Civil War, but their plans proved unworkable and they found themselves stuck. So they established Africatown, their own American settlement, in either 1866 or 1868.
Some families bought land from former slave masters — Meaher, according to Diouf’s book, refused to give any land away. They chose as a leader an African man of noble birth, who eventually changed his name to Peter Lee.
By the mid-20th century, Africatown was in full flourish. Jones and others of his generation described a place where workers walked to their factory jobs and neighbors shared the bounty of redfish and speckled trout caught out on the river. But the pride back then was complicated, Jones said, noting that many Americans had distorted views of what it meant to be called “African.”
“Africa had a stigma,” he said. “I remember going to Prichard Park as a young teenager — the white boys would say, ‘Go back to Africa.’
“My reaction always was, ‘Take me back! You brought me over here.’”
Womack is a co-founder of an environmental group, and one of numerous Africatown plaintiffs in a lawsuit that accuses International Paper, the operator of the shuttered paper plant, of releasing harmful chemicals into the community. (The company has denied wrongdoing).
On Thursday afternoon, Maiben-Owens, the community garden director, showed the empty lots where stores used to be, but also the garden, lush in the late spring heat with peas, corn, okra and sugar cane.
She showed a crooked brick chimney, the revered remains of Peter Lee’s house. She showed the old cemetery, with its big marker commemorating Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, who was on the Clotilda and died in 1935, one of the last of the survivors of the Middle Passage.
And she showed the messy lot where the welcome center used to be. There are plans for a replacement, to be financed by settlement money from BP after an immense oil spill from an offshore rig in 2010. The new community center, Maiben-Owens said, is where the Clotilda belongs.
“Nobody talked about that ship until they found it,” she said. “Now they probably want to put it in Montgomery or something, where it has no place being.”
Diouf said in an interview Saturday that the next chapter for the Clotilda might not be settled for years. “But hopefully this infamous ship would bring something good to the community,” she said. “That’s the only hope. Because the ship itself is a ship of horror.”