The space where Darron Patterson walked home from Mobile County Training School (MCTS) looks quite a bit different than it did all those years ago. Two modular building segments and a mound of dirt now mark the spot of the future home of the county’s Heritage House museum in Africatown.
“I never thought this would be a museum,” the president of the Clotilda Descendants Association said. “Today, the community is on display.”
The new construction, which has now started and is expected to last until at least April, is just another example of the community’s “ups and downs,” Patterson said.
“Everything is cyclical,” he said. “It went from the greatest community I could think of when I was a kid to some down times to this. This is just the beginning.”
The 5,000-square-foot building between the Robert Hope Community Center and the MCTS campus will be operated by the History Museum of Mobile. Half of the space, or roughly 2,500 square feet, will house “Clotilda: The Exhibition,” which was also curated by the history museum.
The exhibition will use interpretive panels, texts and other means to tell the story of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the U.S. in 1860.
“The exhibition will tell the story from the West African origins, through the last voyage, to the settlement in the area and the finding of the ship in Mobile Bay,” History Museum of Mobile Director Meg Fowler told reporters. “It will be focused on the people; the men, women and children who endured the remarkable hardships and survived.”
The account, Fowler said, is the most in-depth account of the Middle Passage on record, mainly because it happened so late after the international slave trade had been outlawed. The story of the Clotilda is recounted in several ways, including interviews with those who lived through it, journals, newspaper articles and more, she said.
“Exhibition visitors will be able to read first-hand accounts,” Fowler said.
In addition to the texts and panels featuring first-hand accounts of the experience aboard the ship, Fowler said, pieces of the ship will also be part of the exhibit. They will be on loan from the Alabama Historical Commission.
The exhibition will be free for all Mobile County residents, she said.
“We hope residents will come and go,” Fowler said. “We hope they’ll spend time and come again and again.”
The Heritage House is a collaborative project, spearheaded by Mobile County Commission President Merceria Ludgood. It includes $1.3 million from the commission and $250,000 from the city for the facility itself. The commission, along with Alabama Power, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and other donors gave money for the development of the exhibit. Africatown community organizations and the Africatown Advisory Council were also involved.
“The modular units’ arrivals are a tremendous leap forward,” Ludgood said in a statement. “Interest is high and we look forward to sharing the educational and inspirational story of Africatown with the world through what will be powerful and emotional exhibits.”
When all the modular buildings are put together the museum will look like a “big house,” contractor Lloyd Hughes said. The building will include planting and landscaping as well as a paved parking lot.
In addition, the structure will include an entry porch, a lobby, restrooms, a conference room, small offices and the exhibit hall. A memorial garden will also be designed as part of the landscape and will incorporate ceramic sculptures from artist Charles Smith.
The Heritage House’s finishing material will be lap siding painted in the colors selected to honor enslaved occupants of the Clotilda and to symbolize the strength and perseverance of their descendants, according to a county statement.
Patterson told reporters he was trying not to watch crews begin to work on the building.
“This is emotional stuff, man,” he said. “So goes Africatown; so goes Mobile.”
When completed, Heritage House will be one stop tourists and others can make in researching the history of the Clotilda and the first residents of Africatown. Visit Mobile and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia have teamed up to produce a short film and water tour that promises to take visitors to the site where the Clotilda was scuttled and burned. The short film, which has already premiered at a Savannah film festival, will be shown to visitors at the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.
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