A presenter at the Africatown community celebration reads a poem aloud to those in attendance.
Joycelyn Davis was immediately taken back to 1860 when she heard the news of the Clotilda’s discovery in the Mobile River, just miles from where her ancestors — the ship’s enslaved passengers — settled after being freed from their captors.
“I tell everyone I got chills,” Davis said of hearing about the find. “I thought about being on that boat. I took myself into hear- ing the waves and screams and thinking about the voyage itself and thinking about how long it had taken to come over and just being thankful that my great-great-great grandfather survived.”
A direct descendent of Charlie Lewis, Davis’ family still lives in the historic Lewis Quarters section of Africatown. She said she was always aware of the story of her family, but being alive to hear the news of the discovery of America’s last slave ship really brings it to life.
“I’m glad I’m here to feel this and see this,” she said.
Built in 1855 by Timothy Meaher, Clotilda left for Benin in 1860, some 52 years after the U.S. made the importation of slaves illegal. Meaher made a bet with investors that the ship could make the illegal passage to Africa and back without being caught, slavery historian Sylviane A. Diouf said. However, the trip was not only made because of the bet, she said, but also because it was cheaper to import slaves from Africa than it was to buy them from other Southern states.
“People coming from the upper South were expensive, and it was cheaper to actually go to West Africa,” Diouf said. “So it was a bet, but it also made good economic sense, if you will.”
The schooner was captained by William Foster, who sailed to Benin and brought back 110 captured Africans, who would be sold into slavery in Alabama, Diouf said.
“They worked on the ships,” she said. “They worked on the cotton plantations and they were freed in April of 1865 when union troops came to Mobile.”
Once freed, the individuals taken from Africa attempted to go
back home, but couldn’t, Diouf said. Instead, they asked Meaher for land. When he refused, they bought it from him. The settlement became known as African Town, she said.
“They decided to recreate Africa where they were,” Diouf said. “So, they called their community African Town. Africatown was a name that was given by someone here in the 1960s, or 1970s.”
The ship itself was discovered in water as deep as 20 feet in the Mobile River, the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) confirmed in a summary of its archeological report. The ship- wreck found is likely the Clotilda because it has the same dimensions and the form of the ship, according to historical documents.
“This is a shoutout of the professional team we had: scholars, scientists, archeologists, you know. They were able to find precisely what the dimensions were, what the materials would be,” Retired Maj. Gen. Walter Givhan, AHC chairman, said. “They knew exactly what it looked like, so when they found this ship, it matched in terms of dimensions.”
Once it was discovered and the shipwreck in question matched the dimensions, it was time to then match other aspects of the historic ship.
“Then came the hard work of getting down to it, finding the materials they were looking for, and again, matching to the wood they had, the yellow pine and white oak,” he said. “The kind of metal, the pig iron, and everything ended up being a match.”
Following the discovery came a “rigorous” review from seven experts from around the world, Jim Delgado, of Search Inc. said.
“So, ordinarily if you do an academic press book, you get
two peer reviews,” he said. “We wanted to do more. We asked everybody for an objective, blind, hard review. It was — I guess the right word is — gratifying to know that a lot of hard work and an adherence to rigor helped make that happen.”
Delgado and others sifted through records to determine if this wreck was Clotilda when there are more than 1,500 wrecks from that time currently sitting in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Clotilda was one of several that were built that big to carry that much, one of only five that had been built to a certain standard and, in the end, there’s only one schooner out of over 1,500 in the Gulf through that entire period that’s 86 feet long, 23-feet- by-6, or almost 7 feet deep, and that could carry almost 120 tons. And that is what is sitting in the Mobile River ….” he said. “If you don’t have a name on something, you have to look at a whole range of pieces of circumstantial evidence until you get to a point where it’s beyond reasonable doubt. So, we got to that point, but you always get other scientists to check your work.”
With one question answered, for Davis, it’s now about spreading the word to others about the family history.
“I have a cousin who attends Alabama State [University] and another cousin, who I raised, who goes to Stillman College,” she said. “So, I told them, ‘when you go back to school, let them know who you are and where you come from and why you are on summer break. Let them know everything that has happened.’”
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