Saturday, July 8 marked the grand opening of “Clotilda: The Exhibition” at Africatown Heritage House in Mobile Alabama, located in the heart of one of the most significant communities in African American history.
The opening took place on the 163rd anniversary of what’s locally known as “The Landing,” the date when 110 West Africans arrived in the United States – in shackles and against their will – on the last documented slave ship to arrive in this country.
The exhibit tells a big story in a small space that’s not so much larger than the ship that transported the 110 back in 1860 – 52 years after international slave trade became illegal – then was burned and sunk to cover up the crime that had been committed.
The group survived the Middle Passage and five years of enslavement, then created the only community of its kind, one that was entirely run by African-born Americans. There they maintained their African identities; continued to speak their languages; established their own set of governance; and built churches, schools and businesses based on what they knew from their homeland.It’s the ultimate story of resilience, and it’s one that has long needed to be shared.
A tale that was once only whispered among descendants of the 110 is now – finally – being heard by people around the world.In 2019, the remains of the shipwrecked Clotilda were identified at the bottom of the Mobile River, providing irrefutable proof of the 160-year-old crime.
The sunken ship also offers a tangible link to the 110, making their descendants a rarity among the millions of African Americans who long for specific details about when and how their ancestors were forcibly brought into the United States.Some pieces of the sunken ship scientifically verified to be the Clotilda are among the artifacts on display in the exhibition, which puts its emphasis not on the ship, but on the 110 men, women and children it brought to the United States.
The exhibit also features a variety of other artifacts, interpretive text panels, and documents.That paperwork includes land deeds and marriage certificates that prove that the shipmates – most of whom didn’t know each other before their capture, many of whom didn’t even speak the same languages or practice the same religions – became a community and, by all reckoning, each other’s family in the absence of true kin. Ripped apart from everyone they knew in West Africa, the survivors eventually established their own family units in the United States.
Survivors Share Their Stories
Because they arrived five decades after international slave trade was abolished and they were quite young at the time – the oldest Clotilda survivors were in their early 20s in 1860 – some of them lived well into the 20th century and documented their first-hand accounts. This means that their children and grandchildren knew the stories of what happened to the 110 – their capture, their enslavement, the Middle Passage, and the burning and sinking of the Clotilda – and passed them down from generation to generation.
Special water tanks hold artifacts recovered from the shipwreck verified to be the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in America.Credit: History Museum of MobileThe modern-day descendants – ranging from third generation into seventh generation and perhaps beyond – were the first people to visit the exhibition.
Out of respect to the descendants, the exhibition opened in a special preview for them last Thursday, July 6. Throughout the day, hands were held, tears were shed and hugs were shared, all representing a mix of emotions that ran the gamut from grief to joy.
“I hope the exhibit draws attention to the story of our ancestors’ beginnings and to the challenges the Africatown community faces today,” said Jeremy Ellis, president of Clotilda Descendants Association.On Saturday, which marked the public opening of both Africatown Heritage House and Clotilda: The Exhibition, the community of Africatown came together to invite the world to share in a story that has been 163 years in the making.
The first hundreds of visitors who passed through the doors included descendants from around the country, members of the community, people who have been following this fascinating story for years, the dive team and marine archaeologists who are studying and conserving the boat, the elected officials and donors who set aside the funding to create the site and exhibition, and the museum curators who have worked hard to trace the stories of the survivors.
“I have spent years reading and writing stories of the survivors,” said Meg McCrummen Fowler, the director of the History Museum of Mobile, which curated, constructed and funded the exhibition and operates Africatown Heritage House. “You can’t do that and not be changed. My hope is that visitors to Africatown Heritage House will leave not just having learned historical facts, but rather having had an experience with history that brings the humanity of the story into sharp relief … and maybe even learning something about themselves in the process.”
If You Go:
Africatown Heritage House is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Due to space limitations, tickets for Clotilda: The Exhibition – which will remain at the site for at least three years – are timed and should be reserved online in advance of a visit.
Tickets, which can be purchased up to 60 days in advance, are $15 for adults; $9 for guests ages 65 or more, students age 18 or more with a valid school ID, and active or retired military with ID; $8 for children ages 6 to 18; free for children 5 and under; and free for Mobile County residents with proof of residency (though donations are encouraged).
“I hope that visitors leave Africatown Heritage House knowing that there is still greatness in the community and amongst the people, and feel deeply connected to something larger than themselves,” said Altevese Lumbers-Rosario, vice president of Clotilda Descendants Association. “That is what my ancestor, Kossula, and the remaining founders of Africatown strived to embody, teach their descendants, and anchor their lives to.”
Learn More About Africatown
Africatown Community Organizations
Africatown is a small residential area just north of downtown Mobile. Many of its residents
can trace their lineage to the 110 survivors of the Clotilda, who founded the community after
the Civil War. For more than 150 years, members of the community took steps to ensure that
the incredible story of those who came before them was always honored and never forgotten.
They tapped into their personal resources and gave of their time, ever committed to
preserving their history while ensuring a bright future for the generations to come. Their
decades of dedication has resulted in the establishment of a full array of community
organizations that work diligently – independently and also in support of each other – to keep
the dreams of the original residents of Africatown alive. Listed in alphabetical order, these
- Africatown Business & Community Panel:
- Africatown C.H.E.S.S. (Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe & Sustainable):
- Africatown Community Development Corporation: https://www.africatowncdc.com/
- Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation: https://africatownhpf.org/
- Africatown Redevelopment Corporation: created by the Alabama State
Legislature/HB#448 in 2021: https://atownrc.com
- Clotilda Descendants Association: https://theclotildastory.com/
- M.O.V.E. (Making Opportunities Viable for Everyone) Gulf Coast Community
Development Corporation: https://movegulfcoastcdc.org/
- Mobile County Training School Alumni Association: http://www.mctswhippets.org/
- Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition: https://www.mejacoalition.org/
Credit: Mobile County Commission
Historic Africatown Churches (in order of founding)
- 1869: Union Missionary Baptist Church, 506 Bay Bridge Road, Mobile, AL 36610
- 1883: Yorktown Baptist Church, 851 East Street, Mobile, AL 36610
- 1893: First Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, 664 Shelby Street, Mobile, AL 36610
For more information, contact email@example.com.
Suggested Reading: Books of Interest (all available on Amazon)
- Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (Zora Neale Hurston, 2018)
- Clotilda: The History and Archaeology of the Last Slave Ship (James P. Delgado,
Deborah E. Marx, Kyle Lent, Joseph Grinnan and Alexander DeCaro, 2023)
- Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last
Africans Brought to America (Sylviane A. Diouf, 2007)
- Historic Sketches of the South (Emma Langdon Roche, 1914)
- The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and
an Extraordinary Reckoning (Ben Raines, 2022)
- The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors
(Natalie S. Robertson, 2008)
Suggested Reading: Articles of Interest
- “Clotilda: Journey of the Last American Slave Ship” National Geographic, November
19, 2019 (Please note: This is behind a paywall, so you’ll need to log in with an email
address or subscribe to access the story.)
- “Clotilda, America’s Last Slave Ship: Stole Them From Home, It Couldn’t Steal Their
Identities” National Geographic, January 16, 2020 (Please note: This is behind a
paywall, so you’ll need to log in with an email address or subscribe to access the
- “Africatown – A Tradition and Struggle Like No Other” by Joe Womack, posted July 7,
2014 on the “Bridge the Gulf” blog
- “Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship,” currently showing on Disney+
- “Descendant,” currently showing on Netflix
- Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail: https://www.dffaaht.org/
(established in 2005)
- Visit Mobile, the official tourism organization for the city, worked with Michelle
Browder of More Than Tours in Montgomery, to mentor a group of aspiring tour guides,
some of whom are descendants. Browder helped five businesses establish licenses and
create marketing tools, in addition to coaching them on how to share fascinating but
difficult stories in both educational and engaging ways. The first class of “Africatown
Experience Givers” graduated on January 25, 2023. Please see related document in
the Clotilda.com press room for more details.