The day this Lagniappe issue hits the stands, an alluring cultural component draws closer to reality. Construction bids for the $600,000 Africatown Heritage House go out Dec. 16 with a targeted completion date of June 21 for the 5,000-square-foot building across from Mobile County Training School.
It’s the latest effect from the 2019 discovery of the slave schooner Clotilda’s wreckage in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The ship illegally transported over 100 captive Africans into Mobile Bay in 1860, kidnapped souls who later founded a self-reliant community north of downtown Mobile.
A joint project between the Alabama Historical Commission, Mobile County and the city of Mobile, it’s being steered by the desires of those closest to the saga, both emotionally and physically.
“Anything we do has to be very community and descendant-engaged, so we’re working very closely with an advisory committee and Africatown Advisory Council of leaders within the community,” History Museum of Mobile Director Meg Fowler said.
The museum is overseeing the exhibit’s layout and working with Visit Mobile on a marketing campaign. Guided by a floor plan from Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, unspooling the globe-spanning narrative in 2,500 square feet is “challenging.”
“At the end of the day, this is a story about people, not about a ship. The greater square footage is devoted to a remarkable story of resilience, persistence and the establishment of this remarkable community,” Fowler said.
It’s estimated the museum will need eight to 10 weeks after building completion to install the exhibit.
“We are already writing text panels, so we’re that far along,” Fowler noted.
The director knows how to build anticipation. She led an imaginative tour of a “rich, multi-sensory space” utilizing audio recordings and various visuals.
As it stands now, the exhibit opens with a discussion of how Mobile’s export economy created a market for slavery. There’s also a look at its complexities, how slave life differed from rural to urban areas.
“We get a surprising number of Americans and international visitors, who really know very little of slavery history,” Fowler said.
The exhibit then examines African culture and life, emphasizing “as many individual stories and biographies” as records allow. The Kingdom of Dahomey, in modern-day Benin, is in sharp focus.
The final voyage of the Clotilda is covered in a “dark and somber” area with “dramatic lighting.” Fowler’s artistic background emerges in the description.
“You imagine the creaking of the ships and the smell of wood and linseed oil on the wood. It is probably the most moving portion, talking about what the Middle Passage experience is like, with primary sources as much as possible,” Fowler said.
Visitors will then see a memorial wall where Clotilda’s human cargo are personalized. Attendees can sit and listen to voices from the local community recite the names of those captives, including just “unknown” for the anonymous.
From there, the legal case against schooner owner Timothy Meaher is covered, including its failed prosecution. Though the victims of his crime forged their own community, their hearts still pined for their home an ocean away.
Visitors then see salvaged portions of the Clotilda wreckage, on loan from the state historical commission. Special accommodations are needed.
“These artifacts will actually be underwater because if they are exposed to air, they will very quickly disintegrate. We have designed a tank system and will have to change the water and monitor its salinity and other things,” Fowler said.
Also covered will be the science of underwater archaeology and how the wreckage was outlined then verified. The hope is it will prevent plundering of the actual site.
“From that dark and dramatically lit part of the exhibit, you emerge into the final room that is bright and hope-filled that talks about Africatown today,” Fowler said.
Portions of the exhibit might rotate or be changed every six months, but the majority of it will remain. A visitor response area will go a long way toward determining those details, too.
Mobile City Council members have prepared new interstate signage directing the curious to the site. City leaders repeatedly reference the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery and the hundreds of thousands of international visitors it has drawn in a couple of years’ time. Fowler said they consulted the upstate institution to get a handle on expectations.
“Broader community participation is one thing EJI has done so well. We have to be prepared to kind of meet people where they are after a very emotional experience,” Fowler said.
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