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The Clotilda & Africatown

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1860-Present
Notable: Event and Place
Location: Africatown, AL (aka Plateau, AL)

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

In 1808, the United States federal government officially banned the import of enslaved people and made breaking the law punishable by hanging. But a bet between a steamboat owner and his passengers over whether or not enslaved people could still be smuggled into the country resulted in the 1860 transatlantic voyage of the Clotilda.

The Clotilda journeyed from America to Ouidah a coastal city in what is now the country of Benin. In addition to the supplies and provisions, the crew traveled with $9,000 in gold ($185,000 in today’s money) for the purchase of enslaved people. The ship’s return voyage to America with 110 poorly-fed African captives on board took 45 days.

To avoid detection, the ship was tugged up the Mobile River after nightfall and the Africans were transferred to another ship before 60 were kept by the owner of the boat and the others were distributed to other slave owners. These unfortunate people were the last slaves to be brought to America from Africa. The Clotilda was then set on fire and sunk to hide what had taken place. But, eventually, the ship’s owner and his partners were federally prosecuted but not convicted due to lack of evidence.

Following emancipation, the former captives of the Clotilda found themselves free but unable to arrange for their return to Ouidah. Instead, they returned to the area along the Mobile River near where they first landed. The group purchased land to start their own community and over time amassed about 6000 acres which came to be known as Africatown.

Having been recently brought from Africa they still remembered their languages, culture, and traditions and were able to continue and preserve them. One of the last survivors of the Clotilda, Cudjo Lewis, shared his experience with Zora Neale Hurston who included the story in her book Barracoon.

In more recent years, Africatown has somewhat fallen on hard times. Some residents had to move to other areas for work which reduced the town’s population and resulted in some properties being left vacant and falling into disrepair. On May 22, 2019, a shipwreck that was found in the Mobile River was confirmed to be that of the Clotilda.

Works Cited

  • Bourne, Joel K. “Their Ancestors Survived Slavery. Can Their Descendants Save the Town They Built?” National Geographic, 15 Feb. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/02/africatown-founded-by-freed-slaves-can-past-save-its-future.
  • Bourne, Joel K. “With Slave Ship Clotilda Found, the Work of Healing a Community Begins.” National Geographic, 31 May 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/05/clotilda-slave-ship-found-healing-community-begins/.
  • “Clotilda (Slave Ship).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 June 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotilda_(slave_ship).
  • “Clotilda Wreck: ‘Last US Slave Ship’ Found in Alabama.” BBC News, BBC, 23 May 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48377930. Fausset, Richard.
  • “Ship of Horror: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/26/us/slave-ship-alabama-africatown.html. Roth, Catherine.
  • “Clotilda (Slave Ship) • BlackPast.” BlackPast, 30 Jan. 2019, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/clotilda.

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