The Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship, arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 with 110 enslaved people. Travel journalist Natalie Preddie visits and reports on the opening of "Clotilda: The Exhibition" at the Africatown Heritage House.
The legend of The Clotilda, the last-known U.S. slave ship, shaped Africatown long before “Clotilda: The Exhibition” opened in Mobile, Alabama’s Africatown Heritage House this past summer. From Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon: The Story of The Last Black Cargo,” which is the biography of a Clotilda survivor, to Bob Marley’s song "Buffalo Soldier," lore of the last 110 African slaves on board has haunted Mobile, Alabama, since the ship’s arrival 163 years ago.
For many years, the existence of this fateful vessel was denied, but in 2019, remnants were found in Mobile Bay and are now displayed in a pH balanced display water tank inside Africatown Heritage House. The story of those aboard The Clotilda is one of resilience and determination — and it is finally being told.
I first heard about The Clotilda during a road trip through Alabama. I travelled through historic Africatown, a hub of African American glory, the home of many Major League Baseball players, politicians, and cultural icons in the 1950s and 1960s. What I heard were heartbreaking tales of racism, forced eviction, and misrepresentation. I met numerous former residents of Africatown who had stories of a thriving community, all of which could trace their lineage to Africans who were brought to Mobile on The Clotilda. I can feel the intense need to share the story of The Clotilda, Africatown, and the descendants of this community. And now, that story is told through this exhibit at the African Heritage House.
I walk through the heavy wooden doors into the lobby of the 2,500-square-foot exhibit. One hundred and ten colorful tiles decorate the entrance in front of me, each representing one of the 110 people stolen from West Africa. The significance of this space is overwhelming.
“Things that take up space in the physical landscape, eventually take up space in the cultural landscape,” Meg McCrummen Fowler, the museum curator at Africatown Heritage House, tells me as we walk into the first thoughtfully lit room. “[‘Clotilda: The Exhibition’] is a place of symbolism and reflection, not only of the original 110, but the legacies that continue today.”
“Clotilda: The Exhibition” is a joint venture between the History Museum of Mobile, Mobile County Commission, and City of Mobile, dense with first-person recollections, antiquities, and original multimedia collections. Opening with objects essential to West African art and religion, this first display depicts life in West Africa.
“We wanted to start our story where their story starts,” McCrummen Fowler tells me as we walk through stunning West African artifacts and unique, original art. “We wanted to introduce people as the individuals they were before they were enslaved.”
Filled with a combination of pieces from museums nationwide and the descendants themselves, the displays feel deeply personal. The descendants were engaged in the development of this exhibit at every turn, helping reconnect the tragedy of their past to the discovery of the present and consideration for the future.
As many enslaved arrived on The Clotilda at a young age, there are substantial documents that record their lives. Through city historical records, old images, captured audio and even video clips, I explore the newfound American existence of the enslaved, their eventual emancipation, and the establishment of Africatown. I hear the songs of home, despairing tales of their Atlantic passage, and read letters to family and friends. From deeds of purchased land to legal emancipation papers, I see the progression and growth of Africatown, proof of their many accomplishments.
On a small screen, I watch a grainy Cudjoe Lewis chop wood outside his small home, a shack lined with newspaper to keep out the cold. I see a black-and-white picture of Matilda McCrear resting in a rocking chair on a sparse wooden porch. I listen to African voice actors read the words of the 110.
I enter the final exhibit space and quietly pad between the displays where physical pieces of The Clotilda are suspended in water tanks. I imagine the fear and sorrow of every captee as they lay bound in the cargo hold, held together by the mud-covered metal in front of me.
“The story of the 110 and Africa town remind us that the past is very much present,” McCrummen Fowler says. “You can’t research and write and read and learn these stories and not be changed, and have this space exist in the community of Africatown and not understand how the past inflects.”
The museum intends to become a launching pad for further learning of Africatown’s deep and intricate history, the community, and legacy. Since the museum’s launch, several Africatown tours have popped up, but it is the longstanding, locally run Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail tour that stands out.
Established in 2005, this tour focuses on education and the preservation of more than 44 sites integral to the development of Africatown. Created, designed, and formerly conducted by a community activist, the late Dora Franklin Finley, it is now her cousin, Eric Finley, who ushers me from Heritage House to The Clotilda’s original landing spot. Anecdotes and family folklore guide our journey from there to the tall red-bricked Stone Street Baptist church, built in 1806, to Mobile County Training School, the starting point for all community members in the mid 20th century.
Our tour finishes at Old Plateau graveyard, where many of those who survived The Clotilda, and their descendants, are laid to rest. A monument of Cudjoe Lewis stands in the center of the cemetery. “You will see that the names on the headstones face east,” Eric Finley tells me. “Because they all wanted to go back home to Africa.”
That evening, I meet with Darron Patterson, a Clotilda descendant and former head of the Clotilda Descendants Association. I ask him how he feels about the exhibition, Africatown, and most importantly, his ancestors.
“It was emotional,” he nods as he recalls the opening day of “Clotilda: The Exhibition.” “I was raised by the children and the grandchildren of the people off that boat. [Through the discovery of The Clotilda], I am finding out more about them and more about me. And we are learning more every day.”
Patterson envisions “Clotilda: The Exhibition” expanding with water tours out to the wreckage site, holograms of Clotilda survivors, and even live action re-enactments. “To know about where we are going, we’ve got to know where we’ve been,” he tells me.
The Clotilda is more than a slave ship: it unintentionally birthed a resilient and powerful Black community that developed a unique and influential fragment of American culture. The discovery of The Clotilda gave a deserved voice to this previously silenced story. Through “Clotilda: The Exhibition,” we are reminded that it was never about the ship: it was about the people.