Clotilda: The Exhibition opened on July 8 in Africatown in Mobile, Alabama. This exhibit, showcased inside the newly constructed Africatown Heritage House Museum, details the journey, captivity, and legacy of the survivors of the last illegal ship filled with enslaved Africans to enter America. The History Museum of Mobile curates the exhibit. Within 2,500 square feet, it recounts the poignant tale of the Clotilda’s 1860 passage, her 110 survivors, and their numerous descendants. The museum stands as a solemn tribute to their endurance. 

Commencing in West Africa and showcasing traditional art and daily life before seizure, the exhibit paints a rich picture of African life before enslavement. From there, the subsequent rooms immerse visitors in the sounds of a creaking ship hull as they take in maps, biographies, marriage certificates, and land deeds of the enslaved Africans and the men who illegally captured them before burning and sinking the ship to cover up the crime. The exhibit culminates with water-filled shadow boxes containing fragments from the Clotilda, which still rests underwater in the Mobile River. 


While the ship's story is historically significant, the real testament of fortitude came when post-emancipation, many of the Clotilda’s formerly enslaved reconnected and established Africatown along the banks of Mobile Bay. Dr. Meg Fowler, the Director of the History Museum says she hopes visitors notice both the somber subject matter as well as the immense accomplishments of the people. “What they achieved in Africatown was remarkable,” says Fowler. In fact, these determined few created the only 19th-century community established and governed completely by African-born Americans. 

Over the years, historians, archeologists, authors, and residents have recounted stories of the ship and the town that was born from its ashes. Africatown's significance was further magnified by Zora Neale Hurston's novel Barracoon which depicts the story of Kossola (later known as Cudjo Lewis), a Clotilda leader and one of Africatown's founders. The museum allows visitors to experience Kossola's accounts of life in Africa, the harrowing ship journey, and his eventual settlement in Africatown. 


The exhibit purposefully uses African names for the survivors and descendants where historical record allows. That decision is one that Fowler is particularly proud of: “It restores that identity with which they were born.” Using the African names also instills humanity and reality into the story. “It introduces visitors to these men, women, and children before they were enslaved and before they knew anything of Alabama,” she says. 

As the museum anchors its place in Africatown, the hope is that it continues to be a vibrant part of the neighborhood. “It is important to us that it feels like it's part of the community, and that the community feels like this is their space too,” says Fowler. As the team works to gather even more information from descendants and residents, they hope to include additional oral histories and uncover even more stories of the past. “I think one of the most powerful things this exhibition does is that it reminds us that the past is very present,” says Fowler. 

Africatown Heritage House welcomes visitors from Tuesday to Saturday, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for children, and free for kids under 5. Mobile County residents receive complimentary entrance with proof of residency.


First published by Southern Living Magazine. Read the full article here