The finding of the last ship carrying enslaved Africans to make landfall in the United States could spark a tourism surge in the area, with as many as a million more visitors per year coming to the city, Visit Mobile CEO David Clark said.
Events related to the Clotilda filled the weekend spanning Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9, and the excitement for it will only grow as the city finds resources and “assets” to benefit it.
“It will be one of the most significant tourism discoveries,” Clark said of the ship. “It’s going to be a gamechanger for tourism for years to come.”
Current Africatown residents, descendents of Clotilda passengers who founded the community, authors, historians and politicians gathered Saturday at Mobile County Training School to celebrate the ship’s finding as part of the Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival.
Before the event kicked off, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Mountain Brook, spoke before a gaggle of local, regional and national press about its importance.
“It was one of those great tragedies and triumphs,” he said. “It was a tragedy for slavery that this country was even in that position, but it is a triumph for the people and the descendents of those slaves who were brought here on the Clotilda to show what America is, what we can do, the democracy we have and the perserverance of people. It is just astounding and it’s amazing.”
Jones, who is up for re-election in 2020, called Africatown’s festival a “celebration of America.”
“It’s a celebration of people who continue to persevere despite the struggles that continue to exist for African Americans,” he said. “This is the time we need to make sure that people understand that those struggles still exist, whether it’s on voting, whether it’s on economics or whatever. We’re going to move forward and this is a great time to showcase it.”
In remarks during the festival, Jones told the crowd whatever benefit Mobile sees from the ship’s finding, he hopes it stays in Africatown.
Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson, who was present at the Africatown event, agreed, adding there is nothing bigger for the community or the city in the coming years than the finding of the ship. It’s now up to city and community leaders to make the most of the discovery, he said.
“It’s not that we don’t have the gold, it’s that we haven’t come up with a way to mine it,” he said. “The issue is everybody has got to be focused on how to mine it.”
Richardson said the city needs to work with the community to come up with an exhibit to highlight the ship. He said maybe it could include a three-dimensional model of the hull, or it could contain holograms, similar to those used at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
“When people walk in there they need to feel like they are on the Clotilda,” he said. “They have to feel the suffering.”
Richardson said leaders can’t wait to bring an exhibit to the area.
“We can’t just sit here,” Richardson said. “We need a national Clotilda exhibit. We need to bring national people in.”
Clark agrees and wants to work with community leaders in Africatown to bring “assets” in the next couple of months that could immediately bring 250,000 visitors to Mobile and Africatown to take advantage of a fast-growing form of tourism.
“Cultural tourism is the fastest-growing form of tourism in the country right now,” he said. “I think people would come from around the world.”
For example, the Legacy Museum brought in more than 400,000 visitors last year, which resulted in those visitors buying more than 100,000 room nights in downtown hotels.
“I’m so jazzed up about the possibilities this brings,” he said. “This is an international story, as we all know. It’s an international tourism story as well.”
Most importantly though, Clark said Visit Mobile wants to drive interest in the story of Africatown and the descendents who still live there.
“We want this to be a catalyst to help the community raise money to tell their story,” he said. “We want to help them with an idea to tell their story.”
In a matter of years, Clark said, the find could boost tourism to the area by 1 million per year.
Joycelyn Davis, vice president of the Clotilda Descendents Association, said she envisions Saturday’s festival to grow to resemble the annual Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) Pow Wow in Atmore.
“We want to be as successful as PCI is with the Pow Wow,” she said.
On Sunday, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico hosted a panel discussion on the Clotilda called “Wade in the Water.” The panel featured Davis, who served as moderator, as well as Natalie Robertson, Ph.D., author of “The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of Africatown, USA”; Liz Smith-Incer of the Africatown Connections Blueway project; and Ann Chinn, director of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project.
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