Last May, 400 years after shackled Africans first set foot in the English colony of Virginia, a team of underwater archaeologists announced that the charred, sunken remains of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach U.S. shores, had been discovered near Mobile, Alabama.
In 1860—52 years after the United States had banned the import of slaves—a wealthy landowner hired the schooner and its captain to smuggle more than a hundred African captives into Alabama, a crime punishable by hanging. Once the nefarious mission was accomplished, the ship was set ablaze to destroy the evidence. The captives were the last of an estimated 307,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860, making the Clotilda an infamous bookend to what has long been called “America’s original sin.”
In 1865 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the Civil War that had devastated the nation was the Almighty’s judgment on that sin. After the war ended and slavery was abolished, the displaced Africans from the Clotilda put down roots as free Americans, but they didn’t relinquish their African identities. Settling among the woods and marshes upriver from Mobile, they built simple homes, planted gardens, tended livestock, hunted, fished, and farmed. They founded a church and built their own school. And they created a tight-knit, self-reliant community that came to be known as Africatown.
Many of their descendants still live there today. The story of these extraordinary people—their trials and triumphs, their suffering and resilience—is one the people of Africatown are proud to remember, and a legacy they are fighting to save.
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
By 1860 enslaved people were the foundation of the American economy, more valuable than all the capital invested in manufacturing, railroads, and banks combined. Cotton accounted for 35 to 40 percent of U.S. exports, says Joshua Rothman, a historian of slavery at the University of Alabama.
“Banks in the U.S. and around the world were pouring money into Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, investing in plantations, southern banks, and enslaved people, who could be mortgaged,” Rothman says.
Importing slaves into the United States had been outlawed since 1808, and by 1859 the price of domestic slaves had soared, cutting deeply into planters’ profits and spurring some to clamor for reopening the trade.
One fiery proponent was Timothy Meaher. Born in Maine to Irish immigrants, Meaher and several of his siblings had moved to Alabama and amassed fortunes as shipbuilders, riverboat captains, and lumber magnates. They also owned vast tracts of land worked by slaves.
During a heated argument with a group of northern businessmen, Meaher made a bold wager: He would bring a cargo of African captives into Mobile, right under the noses of federal authorities.
Meaher had little trouble getting investors for his illegal scheme. His friend and fellow shipwright William Foster had built a sleek, speedy schooner named Clotilda a few years earlier to haul lumber and other cargo around the Gulf of Mexico. Meaher chartered the boat for $35,000 and enlisted Foster as captain.
In late February or early March 1860, Foster and his crew set sail for the notorious slave port of Ouidah, in present-day Benin. So began one of the best documented slave voyages to the United States.
Foster left a handwritten account of the trip, while Meaher and several of the Africans later told their stories to journalists and writers. Two of the former slaves who lived into the 1930s appeared in short films...