Monday, July 1, 2024

Descendants of last slave ship arriving in U.S. share history with students

  Earlier this spring, a group of college students from Auburn University, Chicago’s Governors State University, and members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn traveled by boat to a narrow stretch of the Mobile River, just north of the Mobile Bay Delta in Alabama. Along with them were a journalism professor and a handful of people whose ancestors had traveled the same route in 1860.

  Fifty-two years after the U.S. banned the trafficking of African people to this country for the purpose of slave labor, 110 people who had been kidnapped from present-day Benin arrived in Mobile in anguish, hands bound. After the Clotilda was unloaded, the captain sank it upstream from the port city to conceal his crime. It was the last known ship engaged in trafficking enslaved African people to the U.S.

  Joan Harrell, director of inclusive excellence in Auburn’s College of Liberal Arts and a journalism lecturer, had convened the group of students to document the stories of the ship’s descendants and to examine how this voyage has impacted the community today.

  As the group approached what Harrell refers to as the “water cemetery,” a hush swept over the passengers. Not more than 10 feet below lay the remnants of the ship.

  “Something just came over me,” Harrell said. “I had chills.”

  Some passengers, overcome by emotion, began to cry. As their boat rocked side to side, water seeped onto its deck. “All you could hear were the waves.”

  Honoring a sacred tradition of the Dahomey people, the descendants poured libations into the river’s dark water as they called out the names of their ancestors.

  Only five years before, descendants had finally gained confirmation that a ship that lay in the riverbed was indeed the Clotilda.

  After the wreck was discovered by journalist Ben Raines in 2019, the state of Alabama enlisted the services of James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist who was chief scientist on the team that identified the Titanic, to confirm its identity. 

  Darron Patterson has traveled with Harrell and the students to the Clotilda site for the past three years. He recalls the day when Delgado delivered the news to a group of descendants and community members in nearby Africatown, founded by survivors of the Clotilda in 1866. His great-great-grandfather Kupollee (renamed Pollee Allen) had been a captive on that ship.

  “I will never forget that,” he said. “I looked around the room at all the people I knew, some of them I had grown up with. Some of them had raised me. Everybody had this look of relief about them. Now, all the lies, we can forget about that.”

  The fundamental disregard for human life and the law exhibited by the Clotilda’s captain and the wealthy businessman who funded the voyage echo the history of Juneteenth. Observed on June 19, the recently recognized federal holiday celebrates the end of the enslavement of Black people in the U.S.

  On this day in 1865, enslaved Black people in Galveston Bay, Texas, deceived by white plantation owners, finally learned that they had been legally freed from bondage. It was 18 months after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and nearly a month after the Civil War had ended.

Illuminating an obscured history

  The discovery of the Clotilda and the observance of Juneteenth reinforce the importance of safeguarding this historical knowledge. The Southern Poverty Law Center remains committed to preserving Black heritage and countering attempts to obscure and censor the historical teaching of the African American experience, which includes the oppression of Black and marginalized communities for a century after the Civil War and the communities that today are still battling disproportionate rates of poverty, incarceration and inequity at the ballot box.

  “The foundation of our organization is based on seeking movement on racial and social justice,” said Lauren Blanding, manager of the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. “It’s vital that we understand and reckon with the history of racism in this country to advance our democracy. We see some state governments attempting to hide this history, but we continue to work to dismantle systemic racism and injustice to create a path forward for generations to come.”

  Since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills that attempt to limit the inclusion of nonwhite people in the teaching of American history and ban discussions of racism by imposing harsh penalties on schools and teachers, according to an analysis by Education Week. Since then, the anti-“critical race theory” movement to censor discussions of race in public schools and higher education has morphed into a campaign to ban books at public school libraries on topics including the Holocaust, slavery, same-sex relationships, and gender identity.

  But the country’s education system has long faced criticism from Black and Brown communities for its lack of inclusion of the contributions and experiences of nonwhite people in the U.S.

  Auburn senior Michaela Yielding was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city brimming with Black history. Yet, Yielding said her education included no substantive discussion of the African American experience before she enrolled in Harrell’s journalism class at Auburn and embarked on this storytelling project.

  “I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but I think that within the Alabama education system there’s a fear of talking about our history when it comes to Black people and slavery,” said Yielding, who is white. “We want to just push on from it.

  “For someone who looks like me, the impact is that we can say, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ve moved on, racism doesn’t exist anymore, we all have equal opportunity. You should be able to go out and do the same things as I can.’ I think that’s very harmful. When there are so many people here, who look like me, that get that type of education and are validated in that thought process, it only pushes us farther apart as a society.”

  Harrell’s project seeks not only to illuminate this history but to teach students the importance of finding the humanity in their work, by recognizing the person behind the story. Under Harrell’s direction and Patterson’s mentorship, students spent months conversing with Clotilda descendants, some of whom were based in Africatown.

A path forward

  Unable to return to West Africa, Patterson’s ancestor joined with other formerly enslaved people, some of whom had been born into slavery in the U.S., to purchase 57 acres from their former enslaver and create a community of their own. They built a church and a school. They farmed and opened businesses to provide for themselves. Patterson was born and raised in Africatown, and the pride in the community his forbears built is clear.

  Like many other Black and Brown communities, Africatown has had its share of difficulties.

  For decades, residents told the students, the community faced severe environmental degradation. Hundreds have died untimely deaths due to cancer they believe is linked to harmful chemicals and fumes released by neighboring industrial plants, a condition that has triggered blight and economic disinvestment.

  “The plants are closed, but what remains is still polluting the area,” said Harrell. “You can see that there are homes that were once beautiful. Africatown had a service station, grocery stores, a movie theater. But it’s dilapidated now.”

  Just as the adoption of Juneteenth as a federal holiday sparked controversy related to the country’s present-day culpability for its past, plans to memorialize and honor the victims of the Clotilda have provoked discussion about the need for reconciliation and what shape it may take.

  Some descendants of Timothy Meaher, the wealthy shipyard owner who commissioned the voyage in 1860, have shown a willingness to meet with Clotilda descendants and discuss a path forward. In April, two of Meaher’s descendants participated in a discussion with the Clotilda Descendants Association held by the Inclusive Excellence Conference, an initiative led by Harrell.

  Harrell hopes the storytelling project, which will eventually be published on a website hosted by the Journalism Department of Auburn University, can provide a resource for media, schools, and anyone looking to learn more about Africatown, the Clotilda, and the resilience of its descendants.

  After listening to a panel discussion featuring descendant Jocelyn Davis, an active member of Africatown C.H.E.S.S – which works to preserve the community and its culture – Yielding said Davis’ words stuck with her.

  “She said, ‘Don’t see us as victims. Don’t view our history that way. See us as people who are fighting for justice,’” Yielding said.

  While the Clotilda’s history may be anchored in the past, for Darron Patterson, the future lies in truth and unity both within the community and the country at large.

  “You can’t make history so sanitized that only one group of people looks good,” Patterson said. “Embrace it and move forward.”

  About the author: Safiya Charles is a staff writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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