Celebrating the Survivors of America’s Last Slave Ship

Facility That Sharing the Stories of the Survivors of the Last Slave Ship To Arrive in the United States Will Open This Summer

At a February 3 event honoring the 110 survivors of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the United States, the page was turned for the next chapter of a story that’s been being told for more than 150 years … in secret for decades but now shared on a global stage.

This past weekend marked the “Spirit of Our Ancestors” festival in the Africatown community of Mobile, Alabama. As part of the annual tribute, which is coordinated by the Clotilda Descendants Association, the community came together at the site of the new Africatown Heritage House to witness the unveiling of a signature piece of artwork and to hear the news that the facility is set to open on July 8, the 163rd anniversary of the date the community’s founders arrived in the United States … in shackles.

To understand the magnitude of this announcement, it helps to know some history:

Under the cover of night in the summer of 1860, a ship carrying 110 Africans slipped into Mobile Bay. The Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship, made its illegal voyage 52 years after the international slave trade had been outlawed. (Though it was illegal to bring enslaved people into the United States, domestic slavery itself remained legal until 1865.)

Upon arrival in Alabama, the captives were offloaded into the marshes along the Mobile River. In an attempt to conceal the crime, Timothy Meaher, the man who arranged the transfer, ordered the boat burned and sunk. Some captives remained in Mobile, enslaved by the Meaher family, and others were sold to Alabama plantations north of Mobile.

When slavery was abolished in 1865, the survivors dreamed of returning to Africa, but they didn’t have the financial means to make that happen. Instead, many of them pooled their limited resources to purchase land from the Meahers and turned it into the independent community known as “Africatown.” There they maintained their African identities, continued to speak their own languages, established their own set of laws and – in the early years – even had a chief. They built churches, schools and businesses based on what they knew from their homeland, and they effectively created their own world on the northern end of Mobile.

In 2019, it was verified that the shipwreck of the Clotilda rested at the bottom of the Mobile River, providing a tangible link to the names and stories that have been passed down through generations of descendants.

Africatown Heritage House

Africatown Heritage House is a community building that will house Clotilda: The Exhibition,” to share this long-untold story. The facility was built by the Mobile County Commission but is a collaborative project that involves several entities working in partnership with the community. This includes the Alabama Historical Commission, which is leading the scientific efforts surrounding the search for, authentication and protection of the ship Clotilda and related artifacts, and the History Museum of Mobile, which curated, constructed and funded “Clotilda: The Exhibition” with generous support from other local organizations. The museum will operate Africatown Heritage House when it opens this summer.

The exhibition is especially focused on the people – their individuality, their perseverance and the extraordinary community they established. It will introduce the world to 110 remarkable men, women and children, from their beginnings in West Africa, to their enslavement, to their building the community of Africatown. Their stories will be shared through a combination of interpretive text panels, documents and artifacts, including some pieces of the sunken ship scientifically verified to be the Clotilda.

Africatown Heritage House and “Clotilda: The Exhibition” will open to the public on Saturday, July 8. Called “The Landing” by the descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors, this date marks 163 years since their ancestors arrived on American soil, forced against their will. Events and activities in acknowledgment of the date’s significance are being planned by the Clotilda Descendants Association and other local entities.

Africatown Heritage House will be open from Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition will have limited capacity, so tickets should be purchased in advance. Tickets will likely become available online in early summer.

For more information about the facility and the exhibition, please visit Clotilda.com, which is operated by the History Museum of Mobile. The latest details will be shared as they become available.

Telling the Story of the Slave Ship Clotilda and Celebrating Black History in Mobile, Alabama

Mobile, Alabama
Proudly embracing its history and culture, Mobile, Alabama remembers and honors all the people who have shaped its story. And you can learn about some of these stories at the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail which highlights notable people of color throughout Mobile’s history and offers the chance for visitors to learn about parts of the past that must never be forgotten.

Included in this history is the story of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States in 1860 – decades after international slave trade was outlawed – and which was recently verified to be resting at the bottom of the Mobile River near 12 Mile Island and just a ways north of the Mobile Bay delta.

After the Civil War, Clotilda survivors formed their own community, naming it Africatown, and this year their descendants and the entire Mobile community are celebrating the long-anticipated opening of Clotilda: The Exhibition at the Africatown Heritage House. The exhibition shares the stories of the Clotilda, her survivors and those who came after them, and also serves as a place of reflection for the many African Americans who have been unable to trace their stories in the same way.

There will also be water tours that take visitors down the Mobile River to hear stories of captives on the schooner, Clotilda, a two-masted wooden ship. According to the Smithsonian, the ship was owned by steamboat captain and shipbuilder Timothy Meaher who bet another wealthy White man that he could bring a cargo of enslaved Africans aboard a ship into Mobile despite the 1807 Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves.And so in the autumn of 1860 Captain William Foster sailed for West Africa, capturing and successfully smuggled 110 enslaved Africans from Dahomey into Mobile. One captive did not survive the wretched conditions aboard, and perished during the Middle Passage.

The story of last shipment of enslaved people who landed on American soil, showcases not only the avariciousness and immorality of slave traders and those who profited off of the slaves but also the survival and heroism of the enslaved. It is ultimately a tale of resiliency and the ability to overcome adversity. After the Civil War, these enslaved people founded the Africatown community which still exists today.