They might have found a ship, but I fear Mobile has missed the boat. Congrats? Regrets? How about both?
In late May, esteemed archaeologists announced the discovery of the slave ship Clotilda in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and global eyes turned to the Azalea City. A story long known in local quarters – the Africatown saga – fascinated the uninitiated.
In 1860, the importation of African-born slaves had been illegal for 52 years. Wealthy Mobilian Timothy Meaher wagered he could outsmart federal forces and sent his schooner Clotilda to Benin where they purchased 110 captive souls.
They slipped into Mobile Bay where slaves were divided among backers. The ship was scuttled upriver.
Meaher retained about 30 of the captives who settled onto his then-remote land in Plateau, on the west bank of the Mobile River. Still African as could be, they created an insular community replete with cultural traits from their Old World roots.
The last local Clotilda survivor, Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis died in 1935. Another discovered survivor, Sally “Redoshi” Smith was sold to a Dallas County planter and died in 1937.
Their descendants still pepper Mobile. They are banking executives, professors, entrepreneurs and filmmakers.
The fate of Clotilda’s burned and fragile wreckage is debated. It’s deep in the mud and 160 years into decay. Raising it might be problematic, certainly painstaking and costly. Glass-bottomed boat tours in silt-laden water could prove difficult.
My regrets? It’s lost potential. As big as this news is – there’s talk of making it a national memorial – it could have been the biggest piece of an historic pantheon we’ve neglected to assemble.
Piece number one was the National African-American Archives and Museum in the former Davis Avenue Branch of the Mobile Public Library, the only option for black Mobilians during the Jim Crow era. It was chock full of documents, photos, books, art, furniture and other collectibles but needed more space and the advice of trained museum professionals, much like the history museum before the move to its current facility.
An official said the archives are now closed and the collection returned to private ownership. The county aims to renovate the historic building dating from 1931. Its fate after that is unknown.
Remember Jim and Mary Anne Petty? The Gulfport, Mississippi, couple amassed a collection of roughly 15,000 slavery artifacts and made overtures toward opening a slavery museum in Mobile. In their corner was then-History Museum of Mobile Director George Ewert and city officials who pledged unanimous support but no funding.
In 2003, Ewert stirred the anger of local Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) with an article critical of the Confederacy and Lost Cause mythology. When Mayor Mike Dow, also a former SCV target, chastised Ewert, the Pettys grew leery and pulled their offer.
A former associate of the Pettys said they’ve moved from the region and sold much of the collection.
What if the African-American Archives had received the support and attention it needed since 1992? What if the Pettys’ Middle Passage Museum hadn’t wafted away? When combined with the recent Clotilda discovery and possibly tied in with the existing Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail and efforts at the History Museum, Mobile would have held a history tourism draw like few others.
Sadly, a lot of locals prefer our current approach, where that portion of our story is shunted. But it’s too integral to do so honestly.
For Mobile’s first century, this was a hardscrabble frontier port with a population less than a modern high school’s enrollment. It exploded with the Cotton Boom, a Deep South sea change firmly erected upon a foundation of brutal bondage and white supremacy.
A British visitor described 1858 Mobile as a city “where the people live in cotton houses and ride in cotton carriages. They buy cotton, sell cotton, think cotton, eat cotton, drink cotton and dream cotton. They marry cotton wives and unto them are born cotton children.”
Mobile’s fame, its splendid manors and hoop skirts romanticized in sepia tones? All made possible by slavery, through dark hands on snowy bolls.
The Alabama Tourism Department has partnered with 14 other states in creating a Civil Rights Trail. Birmingham is all in. Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum have drawn almost half a million international visitors since opening last April.
Mobile could have its place in that trail. We have the institutions, historic fodder and historians. Do we have the gumption and honesty?
Regardless of all else, we’re now known for the last slave ship and the last lynching. We can leave others to draw their own conclusions from damning facts or we can own the narrative.
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