Descendants of the Last Slave Ship Fight to Preserve Their History | NowThis
We should have a place in history for this being the last slave ship, that they recognize that coming to Mobile, Alabama. We’ve heard about 1619, but there’s another date overlooked in U.S. history: 1860, the year the last leave ship ever known to land in North America, the Clotilda arrived in Alabama. Descendants formed the small community of Africatown, which is based economic and environmental ruin. Now area residents hope the discovery of the ship will revitalize the town and help preserve its history. This back here, that’s the little mini museum I started from Africa and I carried over until today. Lorna Woods is a descendant of enslaved Africans who arrived on the Clotilda. Over her lifetime, she has collected her family heirlooms and artifacts and hopes one day they will be placed in a museum. This is a basket that you would’ve on your shoulder to pick cotton. This is real cotton come out the fields. It ain’t been shredded. It’s still
got some of the seeds in it. Lorna is one of a few native Mobilians who moved back to Alabama. Her great great grandfather was brought on the Clotilda. The family eventually bought property from white landowners in Mobile, that descendants still live on today. That land was bought from the Meaher family. The Meahers are descendants of Mr. Timothy Meaher, the wealthy white landowner who, on a bet, commissioned the ship that brought over 100 enslaved Africans to America on the Clotilda. I’m sixth generation, so it starts with Charlie, second would be Joe Lewis, and from Joe Lewis came Mama. I’m fifth. Uh huh, she’s fifth. Right. And you’re sixth? I’m sixth. And they survived coming over here naked, not known in language, not knowing where you going. And then when you worked hard, they telling you ‘Well, no, you can’t go back.’ ‘Well since we can’t go back, well we’ll just make this our Africatown. Joycelyn is an Alabama teacher. She grew up on Lewis Quarters. We need something here where people can say, ‘Ok, I want to go visit the Clotilda ship, the replica, or visit the museum, the Clotilda museum.’ So that’s my focus now. Joycelyn joins area residents in planning a bell ringing and butterfly release ceremony in Africatown, commemorating enslaved Africans brought to the U.S.. She worries about getting youth to remain in the area. Living in Alabama, and I’ve seen this, most people my age or younger, once they go to college, their main goal is to leave here and never come back because they want to see some type of growth. About 20 percent of Mobile County lives below the poverty line, almost double the national average. Areas that were once home to Black-owned businesses and predominately black neighborhoods are now empty or remain largely unoccupied. It’s almost gone of like the chamber of commerce, ’cause there was always people coming through. Eric Finley, docent, who gives tours on the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, gives visitors and residents of Mobile history lessons on the town. This was the Wall Street of the Mobile community for the African American community. There were nothing but businesses on the street. The decline of businesses led to the rise of unemployment in Africatown, and more and more people left the area. At one time there was over 12,000 people that lived in this community. It’s probably less than two thousand now. That’s a ten thousand person difference. And because younger people are not coming back to live in this environment. Why do you think that is? The industrial pollution. We’re surrounded by paper mills, chemical companies, asphalt companies. It’s not a good environment. Africatown residents like Joycelyn are suing area companies for health damages they believed were caused by pollution from neighboring manufacturing sites. I was diagnosed 2016. With cancer? Mm- hmm. What kinds of cancer? Breast cancer. I fought. You know, I was like, ‘Ok, my ancestors went through something. You know, they they had to come over here not knowing, you know, anything.’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to fight.’ And I’ll tell people I said,’ Ok, you know, today is my treatment and I’m taking my ancestors with me.’ These environmental conditions make rebuilding Africatown an uphill battle for those trying to bring hope, community and vibrancy back to the town. Some community leaders believe in order for Africatown to move forward beyond economic reparations and settlements, the descendants of alleged slave holders, the Meaher family, need to acknowledge their role in the area’s complex history. I don’t think much about the Meaher family. I think that they have to come to the realization that in order for healing to take place, they have to do some things that they have not done before. One of them is to apologize, Anderson Flen is the president of the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association, which preserves the history of the Mobile area. I don’t think that you can move forward until you recognize that so many people have been hurt. And unfortunately, certain people are still being hurt by their actions in a sense that the Meahers still own a great deal of land in this area and they have a great deal of influence. At some point in time until they are able to come into this community and sit down and really have a serious conversation about what took place in what is equitable and just and fear, because they profited tremendously off of this in so many ways. The Meaher family did not respond to our request for comment. Despite their silence, for the Africatown, community continues pressing toward their goal of renewing Mobile County, organizing commemorative ceremonies, and establishing landmarks and heritage trails where tourists can learn more about the area’s history. The finding of the Clotilda is the catalyst for doing a better job of telling our story. That will be told for the world to know and for us to not forget. That sound you’re hearing is the sound of bells as the community of Africatown commemorates 400 years since enslaved Africans came to the United States. I think it’s a wake call once this stuff has aired and people are able to see what’s actually physically going on, then they’ll begin to appreciate it. I’ve known this story all my life and I just finally feel like it’s getting the recognition that is should get. It’s as if I’m having a chance to call them back to life or at least to celebrate their memory, because we know it’s not possible for them to return. But it really is a wonderful feeling to have them recognized in everything that they had to have encountered or endured. The Alabama Historical Commission filed a claim under maritime law to ensure that the Clotilda remains a publicly owned resource. While it’s unclear what the future of the slave ship wreck will be for now, residents and Clotilda the descendants continue organizing, pushing for new developments in their city. The ancestors are happy. They held off the rain for us today to celebrate this day. What was it like up there? Oh, that was wonderful. They were pushing me to ring that bell. We talk about calling an ancestors. They were helping me ring that bell
today. Everything turned out the way should have. Everything turned out the way should have.