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Legacy of America’s last slave ship explored in new film

What’s left of the Clotilda still rests beneath the turbid water of the Mobile River, where more than 100 captured Africans were secretly offloaded by a white businessman who bet he could illegally import slaves.

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.

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When complete, the Africatown Heritage House will feature a conference hall and museum with exhibits from the slave ship Clotilda. (Gabriel Tynes/Courthouse News)

Soon, Mobile County plans to open a $1.3 million Heritage House in the heart of Africatown, which will feature museum exhibit space for artifacts from Clotilda and elsewhere. The city of Mobile has committed $3.6 million in settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill toward the construction of a new welcome center, the design of which is currently out for bid. Unfunded but in the permitting process is a new waterfront park called Lewis Landing, also an initiative of the county. 

In 2020, the Alabama Legislature committed $1 million toward a comprehensive underwater study of Clotilda and assessment about whether the ship can be salvaged and displayed. That study concluded in May and results are forthcoming. 

But other gestures of goodwill or efforts at revitalization have proven less fruitful. In early 2021, amid an election campaign, local leaders announced the city of Mobile had purchased — for $50,000 — a former bank building in Africatown previously owned by the Meaher family, with the intent of turning it into a food pantry. Only after the announcement and the election did the city and county discover the building would cost more to rehabilitate than to demolish and rebuild. 

The building remains vacant today, but the county has planned for a new facility called Africatown Hall, which will house a food pantry, training and conference space as well as offices for community organizations. They include the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, which was formed by the Alabama Legislature in 2021 and charged with the “revitalization of housing, preservation of history, and attraction and development of commerce” to Africatown.

Separate efforts to award the community broad environmental protections in the city of Mobile’s recent revisions of zoning laws resulted in some success, but fell short of organizers’ original goals. 

“We appreciate what’s been done already, but it’s a drop in the bucket for what it's going to take to raise that ship, get it out of the water and put it on display,” Patterson said. “Then to rebuild this community around it … we’re talking about a monumental effort over a period of decades.” 

But in the meantime, it’s the oral histories Brown is attempting to preserve. Interest in the production of “Descendant” was strong, the filmmaker said, and the project was quick to attract investors and associates. A white native of Mobile with an admitted degree of privilege, Brown said she only developed an awareness of Clotilda and Africatown in the past 10-15 years, particularly amid the production of her 2008 documentary film “The Order of Myths,” a peak behind the curtain of racially segregated Mardi Gras traditions in Mobile. 

She maintained contact with several of the subjects from her earlier film and “Descendant” evolved as sort of a “spiritual follow-up.”

“I never intended to make another film that in any way involved the Clotilda,” Brown said, but after the ship was identified she was inundated with inquiries about documenting it. Focused on another project at the time, Brown was discussing Africatown with a former producer one morning when “he wrote me a check at breakfast and put me on a plane.”

Enthusiastic but aware of her own potential to whitewash the story, Brown recruited Black historians, producers and other crew, including Kern Jackson and Essie Chambers, “in order to be corrective of the blind spots.” 

“A lot of white people make films about the Black experience — it's sort of a sad history of documentary in this country — but getting this right was really important to me," she said.

The descendants of Clotilda survivors opened up and over a period of more than three years, Brown let the cameras roll. 

“This is a community of storytellers who have been passing down the story for 162 years an they are really fucking good it,” she said. “And they were really good at telling their story in a way that I wanted to listen.”

Earlier this year, the project was picked up and co-produced by Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.

In May 2022, a team of researchers visited the site of Clotilda to document the condition of the ship and evaluate whether it is feasible to recover. (Alabama Historical Commission via Courthouse News)

In May, the Alabama Historical Commission completed its Phase III investigation of the wreck of the Clotilda. State Archaeologist Stacye Hathorn said scientific and laboratory analysis is ongoing and a future report will conclude whether the ship can indeed be salvaged. 

“We don’t know what shape it’s in,” Hathorn said in a phone interview. “It’s in at least two pieces, it’s mostly buried, so we can’t consider that question without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

A handful of artifacts were removed from the ship during the expedition and will eventually be put on display. Analysis of soil samples, salinity, water flow, bacteria population, 3D sonar scanning and other measurements are pending. 

“Not everybody gets to write their story in the history book but history writes a story in the soil and I think one of the great uses of archaeology is to help tell those stories,” Hathorn said, referencing her mentor John Cottier, an archaeologist at Auburn University who taught that “truth comes from the blade of a shovel.”

“It’s an important story that hasn't received the attention it deserves and I’m glad the spotlight is finally on it,” Hathorn said. 

Brown said the film portrays the community’s resilience over the years and gives reason for optimism, “but there are also a lot of things in their way.”

Patterson hopes “Descendant” can be leveraged to push for improvements. 

“We can't allow this film to put all this spotlight on Africatown and not have something sustainable come out of it,” he said. “This is a community for everybody. So goes Africatown, so goes Mobile. I hope we come out of this with something we can put into motion toward making sure what we see on that screen survives and is eventually reborn.” 

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