By Ben Raines
Now that we’ve found the Clotilda, the last ship to bring slaves into the United States, it is time to figure out what to do with the wreck.
Alabama has already staked a legal claim under state law, which means the fate of the Clotilda will be decided by state officials. It is imperative we make sure those officials rise to the occasion and take full advantage of the possibilities — and the historical responsibilities — presented by the ship.
There have been calls to put it in the Smithsonian, or leave it in place along the swampy shores of the Mobile River where it was burned and sunk, serving as a submerged memorial akin to the doomed battleships at Pearl Harbor. Others have suggested putting what’s left of the ship — which includes the hold where the captives spent their six-week journey, naked and chained in filth — in the struggling GulfQuest Maritime Museum, next to the Carnival cruise ship terminal.
A Civil War reenactor buttonholed me in the Fairhope Waffle House and told me the ship should be blown up and crushed to dust the way they’d been doing his beloved Confederate statues (though not so much in Alabama, where an 88-foot-tall monument to Confederate soldiers still dominates the grounds of the state capitol).
The obvious answer seems to be to dig it up from its cocoon of mud in the Mobile River and put it on display in a museum in Africatown, the community founded by the captives who arrived aboard the ship. As the person who hunted for and found the wreck of the Clotilda, that’s what I’m for, a position in concert with the residents of Africatown.
“That’s exactly what we want,” said Pastor Christopher Williams Sr., of Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown. “We want it dug up and placed on display in the community. This history is important not only in the black man’s heart, but in hearts all over the world. Everyone wants to hear Africatown’s story.”
This would honor both the settlers of Africatown and their descendants still living in Africatown today. The educational and tourism benefits associated with such a museum are obvious, especially so when you compare the financials from similar historical sites associated with slavery and Civil Rights tourism. In some cases, slavery-related exhibits have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into local communities through tourism.
Fortuitously, Africatown received about $4 million out of BP oil spill settlement money to build a museum and welcome center a few months before the Clotilda was found, providing a perfect home for the ship. It is located adjacent to the cemetery where many of the Clotilda captives are buried. The Africatown museum hosting the shipwreck would instantly become one of the crown jewels along the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, which highlights critical places in the African-American story, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Clotilda is a similarly powerful artifact, the only ship from the U.S. slave trade ever found. In fact, out of more than 20,000 vessels that participated in the global slave trade, only 13, counting Clotilda, have been found. The pieces of a slave ship on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture come from a South African slave ship that sank in Brazil. Naturally, some of the artifacts from the Clotilda should be sent to the Smithsonian, where they can tell this story on the national level.
But the actual ship should stay in Africatown. Archaeologists say digging up Clotilda and preserving its ancient hull and contents will be expensive, likely in the tens of millions of dollars. Any student of Alabama’s political landscape (and the state’s perpetually broke financial situation) must doubt it will be possible to find support or funding for preserving this relic of the slave era in the former capital of the Confederacy.
But we needn’t rely on Alabama alone to preserve the ship. It’s time to ask the nation to take on the task and finance the effort to wrest it from the river mud. Clearly, the Clotilda is of international historical significance. Alabama’s congressional delegation, particularly Rep. Bradley Byrne with his Mobile connections, and Sen. Doug Jones, a noted civil-rights warrior, should lead the charge and propose companion bills in the U.S. House and Senate to fund the recovery of the ship on behalf of all Americans.
There is another thing that should be done with the Clotilda to maximize the way we tell its story and the story of slavery writ large on a national scale. We should build a historically accurate replica of the ship, one with its hold configured as it would have been to imprison 110 people. Remember the wrenching scenes aboard the slave ship in the movie “Amistad,” and its depiction of the Middle Passage ocean crossing? A replica of Clotilda, complete with chains and manacles as used by slavers, can bring that history to life in a way nothing else could.
We have detailed plans and descriptions of the Clotilda, including the woods used to build her, the dimensions of her beam, length and cargo hold depth and the layout of her sails. It would be a simple thing to build a period-correct ship, which could then become an exhibit itself, perhaps tied up alongside the GulfQuest Maritime Museum in downtown Mobile, just two miles from the Africatown museum where the actual wreck will be on display. We would add another stop to the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, and the ship could also serve as a traveling museum, sailing from port to port on an educational journey similar to those undertaken by replicas of Columbus’ ships, the Nina and the Pinta. (Interestingly, out of all the maritime museums in the nation, only four, counting Mobile’s, have failed. The one thing the four failures have in common is the museums all lacked ships visitors could explore.)
The saga of the Clotilda and its manacled passengers, from the illicit journey on the eve of the Civil War to the creation of the nation’s first immigrant community founded and ruled by Africans, cuts to the heart of the American story. It is a tale full of tragedy, but also resilience, a story that highlights our complicated relationship with America’s slaving past.
Alabama has too often been on the wrong side of this history. Now, we must call on the rest of the nation to ensure that Alabama does not miss this moment to save this incredible story for the generations to come.
Alabama native Ben Raines is a journalist, documentarian and adventurer who discovered the wreck of the Clotilda.
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