For Cleon Jones, it was just a matter of time.
The president of the Africatown Community Development Corporation had heard for years from his parents and grandparents the last slave ship to travel to America was hidden by the murky waters of the Mobile River. He never doubted it would be found and identified.
“We’ve been taught all this, all our lives,” he said. “I’ve even fished in the area where the Clotilda was laying dormant. I was quite confident we would be celebrating the finding of this great ship.”
The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) announced Wednesday, May 23 the identifying of the ship, according to a statement.
“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” AHC Executive Director Lisa Demetropoulos Jones said in a statement. “The voyage represented one of the darkest eras of modern history and is a profound discovery of the tangible evidence of slavery. This new discovery brings the tragedy of slavery into focus while witnessing the triumph and resilience of the human spirit in overcoming the horrific crime that led to the establishment of Africatown.”
From February to July 1860 — some 52 years after the U.S. banned the importation of slaves — the Clotilda illegally transported 110 people from Benin in West Africa to Mobile. Co-conspirators Timothy Meaher and Captain William Foster made an effort to evade authorities and destroy evidence of their criminal voyage by burning the vessel and dividing the Africans among their captors, where they remained in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Community supporters are hopeful the Clotilda wreckage can be an addition to plans already underway for a welcome center. Jones said the community received more than $3 million in BP settlement money for the facility.
Whether the ship can be safely raised or not, Jones is hopeful a memorial can be dedicated, either at the ship’s resting spot or within the confines of the community founded by its passengers.
“I’d like to see it in the community,” he said. “We could bring it to the same property as the welcome center.”
Karlos Finley, immediate past president of the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail agreed; however, he also discussed possibly building a replica on the site as well. Such an exhibit could have the same impact as The Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
“There could be holograms from the bowels of the ship that tell the stories of those who crossed the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “It could be the most powerful thing people could see.”
Like Jones, Finley hopes the discovery can help the community economically by bringing visitors from all over the world to Africatown to learn more about the history.
Under the federal mandate set forth in the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1999, the Alabama Historical Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office are charged with the management and guardianship of maritime archaeological sites abandoned and embedded in Alabama waters.
In accordance with that mandate, the AHC took action last January after a local reporter made news with a claim of having located and identified the ship. Though the ship detected was, in fact, not the Clotilda, the incident renewed interest in resolving the puzzle of what had become of the ship that transplanted the enslaved individuals from Africa to Alabama.
The work and focus of AHC became to locate the remains and confirm the identity of the storied shipwreck. AHC, working in conjunction with the Black Heritage Council, National Geographic Society (NGS), Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), Diving with a Purpose (DWP) and the National Park Service (NPS) assembled a team of foremost experts in maritime archaeology led by Dr. James Delgado and Search Inc. to conduct archaeological assessment of a previously unsearched area of the Mobile River.
Initial historical research and archaeological survey revealed up to two dozen vessels from the 19th and 20th centuries. The survey led to underwater excavation that revealed one wreck that closely matched some of the known characteristics of Clotilda.
“Utilizing the latest scientific techniques and in-depth archival research, the team identified a target for further investigation and excavation,” Eric Sipes, a senior archaeologist with the state, said.
After a year of study, including forensic analysis in Search’s and National Geographic’s laboratories, consulting with other experts and exhaustive archival research into original documents, the scientific research concluded the wreck is likely Clotilda.
Their conclusions were independently reviewed and agreed upon by an international suite of leading authorities.
The details include confirmation of the schooner’s unique size, dimensions and building materials comprised of locally sourced lumber and “pig iron” that are an exact match to the specifications outlined in historic registries. Experts were able to observe the exceptional construction and determine the ship was built prior to 1870.
The vessel remains also showed signs of burning, which is consistent with Foster’s claim he burned the Clotilda after scuttling her. A detailed survey of all surviving historical survey records for schooners in the entire Gulf of Mexico region, and including those of the Port of Mobile, found only four vessels built in the size range as this wreck; only one, Clotilda, out of some 1,500 vessels assessed in the archival records, matches the wreck.
Now that the preponderance of evidence makes a clear statement as to the likelihood of the ship’s identity, AHC shifts its focus to the protection of the asset.
The path to discovery has been heavily dependent upon the necessary corroboration by scientific methodology, which also requires additional research to not only inform next steps, but to make recommendations as to the overall preservation of the site.
“Additional archaeological research will help us to learn more details about the story of the Clotilda and its survivors,” state archeologist Stacye Hathorne said. “It is important to preserve the site so that additional research may be conducted and the story may emerge.”
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