With the help of $1 million in state funding, the Alabama Historical Commission will begin its next phase of preservation for the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the U.S. in October, the organization announced in a press release Thursday afternoon.
The multifaceted phase includes targeted artifact excavation from the site of where Clotilda was scuttled using industrial dive efforts supporting environmental and structural assessment of the site and an engineering study of the riverbed to inform stability.
The environmental study will examine the composition of the sediment around the wreck, monitor water movement, and contain a biological review of the species that have colonized the wreck area. A structural assessment will appraise the level of deterioration and condition of the wood, creating an evidence-based plan for long term preservation. Finally, the engineering study will evaluate what is needed for site protection as well as the integrity of the riverbed for consideration of erecting a memorial on site.
“The Clotilda is a priceless and significant artifact very much deserving of our respect and remembrance. Protecting this resource is imperative,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. “The Alabama Historical Commission has been devoted to carrying out their mandate of guardianship, acting with the ship’s best interests,” said Ivey. “By preserving … Clotilda, Alabama has the opportunity to protect a piece of history, and I look forward to Alabama carrying out that responsibility.”
State Sen. Vivian Figures said in the statement that the portion of Mobile known as Africatown exists because of Clotilda and its history needs to be told by the descendants.
“With the confirmation of the vessel, there is no denying the brutality they suffered, and the reality of how they survived and built a community in Alabama in spite of all the things they endured,” she said in the statement.
In the archaeological report released in May of 2019, the wreckage of the Clotilda is described as being in a fragile state.
The vessel was scuttled and burned in July 1860 in an effort to conceal and terminate evidence of the premeditated crime of human trafficking by co-conspirators Captain William Foster and Timothy Meaher. According to oral histories by locals familiar with Mobile’s maritime history, Clotilda’s remains were dynamited in the 1940s or 1950s, possibly to salvage materials from the ship, or as an attempt to further destroy the wreckage.
As part of AHC’s calculated oversight of the vessel, the agency implemented a strategy to maintain ongoing documentation of the vessel throughout all phases of project. SEARCH Inc., contracted by the Alabama Historical Commission, has continued to scan the area of the Mobile River near Twelvemile Island where the vessel identified as the Clotilda is located, documenting the infamous slaver as well as the many other vessels in the vicinity abandoned in a ship graveyard.
This ongoing observation has proved to be a crucial step in assessing the overall integrity of the ship as the agency moves into the next phase of preservation. The Alabama Historical Commission has released new sonar images of the Clotilda wreck.
The newly released images of the vessel (taken March 2020) reveal that the full form of the ship is now clearly visible and exposed. In March, the river levels were lower than when documented in September 2019 and with little current. These prime conditions allowed for a slower set of continual sidescan sonar passes near the vessel, yielding the clearer images of the wreck.
The ship’s interior is of critical archaeological importance as it could retain considerable archaeological and forensic evidence of the slave trade voyage of Clotilda and the illegal transportation of 110 African human trafficking victims who were brought to Mobile for the purpose of enslavement.
“Phase 3 archaeological investigations will provide important information that sheds more light on the stories of those who were captured and transported aboard the Clotilda,” State Archeologist Stacye Hathorn said in the statement. “It will also inform us regarding the condition of the wreck itself and help us to make the most responsible and best decisions about how to preserve and memorialize the vessel.”
The announcement from the AHC comes less than a week after the Mobile City Council approved a $24,000 contract with SEARCH, Inc. to work on an application to list Twelvemile Island on the National Register of Historic Places and name Clotilda a national landmark.
“The Alabama Historical Commission absolutely supports this effort,’ AHC Executive Director Lisa Demetropolis Jones said in a statement. “The City of Mobile is working with our agency for these National Register nominations through the Certified Local Government Program. The importance of the Clotilda deserves National Historic Landmark status, along with the designation of two ironclads and a maritime historic district that tells the story of Mobile and Alabama’s maritime history.”
The site of the Clotilda is now protected by a “Boats Keep Out” zone authorized under regulation 220-6-.19 of the Administrative Code of Alabama. Only vessels and persons authorized by the Alabama Historical Commission may access the site. ALEA State Troopers assigned to the Marine Patrol Division regularly patrol the area, and violators will be cited.
Since the announcement of the identification of the Clotilda, droves of visitors have traveled to Alabama – specifically Africatown – to pay their respects to the 110 individuals aboard the ship and to honor the nearly 12.5 million Africans who were forcibly migrated during the transatlantic slave trade. The Clotilda is significant to Alabama and is also internationally relevant. Preserving the ship is of critical cultural importance for our entire nation.
Centers of education across the country have ushered in millions of visitors seeking to learn more about the complex and under shared history of African Americans in the United States. In March 2020, AHC announced a partnership with the History Museum of Mobile, Mobile County Commission, Africatown community members, and the city of Mobile to support a Clotilda exhibit at a new facility – the Africatown Heritage House – which will be located in the heart of Africatown. The exhibit will feature items from the History Museum of Mobile’s collection, an area for Africatown community stories, and will display Clotilda artifacts on loan from the Alabama Historical Commission.
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