MOBILE, Ala. (CN) — The deliberately burned and broken wooden schooner is still lodged on the bottom of the Mobile River, where it was rediscovered in 2018, some 158 years after its final voyage.
What’s left of the Clotilda, America’s last slave ship, still rests beneath the turbid water — remarkably preserved, somehow — just upstream from the swampy location where its illegal cargo of more than 100 captured Africans were secretly offloaded in the dark of the night before the ship was set ablaze, after a forced and cramped voyage of nearly 6,000 miles — all on the egocentric bet of a slave-owning white businessman and landowner more than half a century after Congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
In 1860, slave owning was still legal and not uncommon, especially in Alabama and elsewhere in the South. But this story is about more than slavery or the slave owner, Timothy Meaher. It is about more than his bigoted bet that he could import African slaves or the ship Clotilda and the circumstances of its journey.
Instead, it’s a story about the legacy of those former slaves, survivors who, although subject to emancipation just a few years after their arrival, nevertheless lived the rest of their lives in a form of indentured servitude, subject to Jim Crow laws and the exploitation of white governance and their former captors. Yet, against all odds, they still carved out a settlement, a livelihood, an economy and an identity that perseveres even today. This is a story about reclaiming and celebrating that narrative.
“This is a hero’s journey, more than a story about sad exploitation,” filmmaker Margaret Brown said in a Zoom interview about her fourth feature documentary film “Descendant,” which debuts on Netflix on Friday. “But there are definitely obstacles in their path and [examples of] environmental injustice and things like that, but it is a very layered story.”
Darron Patterson is the great-great grandson of a Clotilda slave whose African name was Kupollee but who was renamed Pollee Allen for white tongues. Patterson was born and raised in Africatown, the community established by Clotilda survivors. Until his term recently ended, he was also president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. He referred to the film as a “game changer.”
“It is really going to shine a light on Africatown, which is a microcosm of America,” Patterson said in a phone interview. “I love that place. It was great growing up there. It was peaceful. I was everybody’s son and you were everybody’s daughter and everybody looked out for you.
"Teachers couldn’t wait to get to school to teach you so you could get a handle on the world and go out and be a viable citizen. We had everything; shops, a post office, stores, drive-ins, gas stations. But over the years they lopped it up with major highways, then industry came in and made it nearly unlivable.”
The film captures the narrative of descendants including Joycelyn Davis, whose ancestry can be traced to Clotilda survivor Charlie Lewis, named Oluale in his native language. Davis’ aunt, Lorna Woods, has documented oral histories and inventoried family artifacts dating to the founding of Africatown, even as the neighborhood was enveloped by lumber yards, paper mills, chemical plants, a wastewater treatment facility, construction and logistics services. As descendants died off or moved away, shops and churches closed and housing declined.
Interest in revitalizing the community spiked after Clotilda’s discovery, which was formally announced in 2019, but Patterson said the opportunity for investment is far greater than any that has been promised or committed thus far.