Photo | Shane Rice
“It’s about the people, not the ship,” Joycelyn Davis has repeatedly said during interviews about the finding of the bones of the last known ship carrying enslaved Africans to the U.S. It’s a mantra she hopes will resonate with those entrusted with the best interests of folks in her community.
Davis, a direct descendant of Chief Oluale, or Charlie Lewis, a passenger aboard the Clotilda, hopes the ship’s notoriety will translate into more economic advantages for others in a portion of Mobile known as Africatown.
“We all want to see some type of economic growth,” Davis said. “This will be another draw besides Mardi Gras. Mobile has more than Mardi Gras, but when you say ‘Mobile’ people immediately think of Mardi Gras.
“We want to think of Clotilda when they think of Mobile,” she added. “It will be something else for people to see.”
This comes as the city eyes plans to apply for special federal historical designations for both the Clotilda and a small stretch of land in the Mobile River where it and several other vessels were scuttled throughout history.
Tuesday, July 24, the Mobile City Council voted to accept a $24,500 grant award from the National Park Service to allow the city to hire a consultant to prepare applications for two federal historical designations related to the Clotilda. The grant has no city match and will allow the city to hire SEARCH Inc. to help it apply to have Twelve Mile Island — where the Clotilda and other shipwrecks were found — to the National Register of Historic Places and have the ship itself designated a National Historic Landmark, Mobile Historic Development Deputy Director Christine Q. Dawson said in an interview with Lagniappe.
“What we are hoping to accomplish is to draw attention, especially to Clotilda, and draw positive attention to lots of historically significant sites,” Dawson said. “The designations protect the site from federally funded or federally regulated activities.”
For instance, Dawson said, the designation would mean the area where the Clotilda and other ships were found, including the CSS Huntsville and CSS Tuscaloosa, would be off limits during any dredging operations.
Now that the grant award has been approved, SEARCH Inc., which helped in the discovery of the 1860 slave schooner, would make the application. From there, Dawson said, it takes about a year to get through the process.
Included in the scope of work for the contract with SEARCH is a plan to hold two public meetings with stakeholders in Africatown, Dawson said. The meetings will help those in the community “understand what the process is and why it’s important.”
The public will be involved in the process outside of the two meetings as well. The city, through Director of Community Engagement Anitra Henderson, has been working with Africatown groups on plans with the Clotilda going forward, city spokeswoman Jennifer Zoghby said.
“Pre-pandemic we had gotten some insights from a group about what the Equal Rights Initiative did in Montgomery with the Legacy Museum and what a future exhibit might look like,” she said.
However, any future exhibit containing a piece of the slave ship depends on whether or not the submerged schooner can be moved.
“There are significant questions about whether it can be moved,” Dawson said. “When wooden ships have been at the bottom of a river for 150 years, there are questions about whether they can be moved safely. As a preservationist in the field for more than 20 years, I understand how much we can learn from Clotilda if we are able to move it to a place of honor in a museum in Africatown.
“I have great respect for leaving things where they are,” she added. “I think the descendents should get to say what happens.”
The discussions over a possible exhibit featuring the Clotilda are beginning to take shape at a time when so-called “heritage tourism” is exploding. David Clark, CEO of Visit Mobile, said the Legacy Museum in Montgomery was responsible for 500,000 visitors to the state’s capital city and more than 100,000 room nights.
“I think heritage tourism will be a leading segment of tourism in Mobile in the coming years,” he said.
Clark said he and others have spoken with stakeholders about the opportunities for tourism in the area. He said he firmly believes tourism to the area should benefit its residents and the stakeholders.
“This is super exciting,” Clark said of the tourism opportunities. “Africatown residents are the ones who will benefit from this.”
Clark expects the promotion of the area for tourism purposes to start in phases once the story has been secured and written. At that point, phase one could be trips by boat from Cooper Riverside Park to the site where the shipwreck was found.
The second phase could be the Heritage House, a facility designed to be the home of a Clotilda exhibit. The exhibit is a collaboration between the Mobile History Museum and the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC).
The exhibit will include the histories of the final journey of the slave ship, the settlement and history of Africatown, and the discovery of the sunken schooner, all through a combination of interpretive text panels, documents and artifacts, according to a statement from the commission.
The exhibit will be housed in a forthcoming facility, the Africatown Heritage House, which will be adjacent to the Robert Hope Community Center. Construction will begin immediately. Work on the facility is expected to be completed by late Summer 2020, with the exhibit tentatively opening in October 2020.
A third phase, Clark said, would be more exhibits in a museum in Africatown.
“I think we need to own our past,” he said. “We don’t have a pretty past. We need to tell the story to help heal … and make this a better community.”
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, according to AHC. 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.
Aboard the ship, Davis said, was an African doctor, king and chief, among others.
A small band of the Clotilda passengers reunited post-war with the hopes of returning to Africa. When that dream was not realized, the survivors and their descendants established a new home for themselves in the Plateau area of Mobile — a community that is known today as Africatown.
Among those first settlers of Africatown, Davis said, was her ancestor Charlie Lewis. She said he bought seven acres of land from slaveholder Col. Thomas Buford in 1870.
“He still has family members who live there today,” Davis said. “It’s known as Lewis Quarters.”
Clotilda was scuttled and burned near Twelve Mile Island, which was the site for many shipwrecks, Dawson said. Its location is what made it a popular spot to destroy ships.
“To my knowledge, it’s because it was up the river and out of sight of people,” she said. “When ships were scuttled, it was a hidden backwater type of place.”
In addition to the Clotilda, Twelve Mile Island also marks the final resting place for two Confederate Ironsides, Dawson said.
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama website, Ebenezer Farrand, the commander of the Confederate naval squadron in Mobile Bay, ordered CSS Huntsville and the CSS Tuscaloosa scuttled at the site to prevent them from falling into Union hands on April 12, 1865, three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
As tourism activity picks up in Africatown because of the Clotilda, Davis hopes a portion of the money made from visitors to the city can be reinvested into the Plateau area. For instance, she feels more can be done to address community needs, like housing. She said the city needs to do more to eradicate blight and build new housing in the area.
“I would like to see some things in the city, as far as rebuilding some homes,” she said. “It’s not about the ship — it’s about the people.”
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