Museum tells story of Africatown, its people and the crime that started it all

More than 160 years ago, a schooner carrying illegal human cargo sailed into Mobile Bay.

It was a half-century after the importation of slaves had been outlawed in the U.S. Still, in the dark of night, 110 kidnapped men, women and children were unloaded from the ship to Alabama’s shores. The captain then burned and scuttled the vessel, the Clotilda, in the shallow inlet to get rid of evidence of the crime.

His captives were the last known enslaved Africans brought to the U.S.

They would spend five years in bondage before emancipation. When freedom came, they continued to work the land and other jobs for a pittance so that they could pool together their money in the hopes of leaving Mobile and returning to Africa. Realizing they would never raise enough, they instead purchased land from their enslaver, a co-conspirator in their kidnappings, and established Africatown. There, they lived, worked, raised their families, supported each other and passed down the stories of home.

Africatown Heritage House will open July 8. The museum shares the story of the 110 Africans who arrived in the US on the last known transatlantic slave voyage more than 50 years after transatlantic slave trade was illegal.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The tale of the Clotida, its last illegal voyage and its unceremonious sinking has been well researched by journalists and historians. But, for decades, the story of Africatown’s people, and their determination to stay together and build a community of their own, wasn’t widely known.

On July 8, the 163rd anniversary of the arrival of the Africans on Alabama shores, the Africatown Heritage House opened. The museum tells the history of Africatown and the journey to the U.S. — this time through the preserved words of the people who lived it, as well as their descendants.

I visited with my daughter Layla, 12, as part of our tour of Black history museums in the South. Over the course of five days, we toured five museums stretching from South Carolina to Alabama. Africatown was our final stop, and it felt like a metaphor for what Black history museums seek to document: the will of a people to survive and thrive despite the horrors inflicted upon them.

“It is a story of resilience, courage and pride,” said Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the Africans on the Clotilda. Another of the captives was Cudjo Lewis, one of the last living and most well-known captives on the Clotilda. He was 19 when he made the journey to the U.S. Before his death in 1935, he shared his story with several writers, including author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.

Born in Benin about 1840, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis was deported to Mobile, Alabama on the last slave ship to the U.S. in 1860 with another 109 young men and women. He gave several interviews, including a very lengthy one to writer Zora Neale Hurston in 1928. Hurston also filmed him. Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis died in 1935, the last survivor of the last slave ship. Photo by Emma Langdon Roche from 1914. (New York Public Library)

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“When I talk about the Clotilda story, the Africatown story ... the takeaway for me is that the ages ranged from 2 to 25. These were babies that were aboard the Clotilda,” Davis said. “Everything that they went through — starting from villages being raided, being taken away from their parents, being taken away from their homeland, going through the Door of No Return and hiding out in swamps for two weeks before being taken to different plantations — they survived all of that.”

In 2022, descendants of the man who organized the illegal transport of the slaves issued a statement to NBC news condemning his actions as “evil and unforgivable.” They acknowledged that what he did “had consequences that have impacted generations of people.”

Until the wreckage of the Clotilda was found and confirmed in 2019, the story of the illegal transport was legend. But the ship’s uncovering brought validation to the descendants of Africatown’s first residents.

Now they hope the museum will uplift their long-neglected community, one bisected by a highway and surrounded by industrial development.

Joycelyn Davis, a direct descendant of Charlie Lewis,  poses for a photograph outside the Africantown Heritage House museum days before its inauguration on Friday, June 30, 2023.  Lewis was one of the last known enslaved Africans who arrived in 1860 on the Clotilda. 
(Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Africatown museum is not the only Black history museum receiving buzz in Alabama.

Before arriving in Mobile, we had visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

The museum, opened in 2018 and developed with $20 million in funding from private donations and charitable foundations, offers an immersive and unflinching look at slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and all the ways these American institutions have continued to impact Black lives today. A 6-acre park serves as a memorial to more than 4,000 Black people who were lynched in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950.

Following its expansion in 2021, the museum has ranked as the second most popular paid attraction in Alabama, with more than 500,000 annual visitors, behind the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It has been credited with spurring redevelopment in downtown Montgomery and has become a reference point for other museums that chronicle the African American experience.

Davis said she hopes that, within five years, the Africatown museum will reach a similar level of prominence.

Africatown Heritage House, an idea that was spearheaded by Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, is a $1.3 million venture supported by the city of Mobile, the Alabama Historical Commission, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the History Museum of Mobile, which operates the institution.

It was determined from the start that the museum must be located in Africatown, despite the limited infrastructure — there are no hotels or restaurants, and the wi-fi is spotty — to support a large influx of tourism.

It was also important to engage the descendants of Africatown in the process, said Meg McCrummen Fowler, director of the History Museum of Mobile.

Descendants of Africatown's founders wanted to be sure the Clotilda Exhibit connected to their West African heritage. Museum curators connected with experts in West African Art and Yoruba linguists to meet the highest curatorial standards. Credit: Visit Mobile.

Credit: Visit Mobile

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Credit: Visit Mobile

Descendants have helped shape the museum by donating artifacts and offering advice, she said. Museum leadership also consulted with experts in West African art and Yoruba linguists to ensure displays met the highest standards of curation.

The exhibit begins in West Africa, introducing African customs and the communities where individuals lived before they were captured. There is also context for those who may not know about domestic and transatlantic slave trade, Fowler said.

At the heart of the exhibition is the story of Africatown and how the Africans banded together to purchase land, marry and establish schools and churches in order to thrive in the worst possible circumstances.

Visitors see remains of the ship only after learning the stories of the people and hearing the names of the known passengers on the Clotilda. The artifacts on display include wood fragments and iron fasteners that scientists used to identify the ship.

“She’s very well preserved for her age and for the fact that she was burned,” Stacye Hathorn, state archeologist with the Alabama Historical Commission, said of the Clotilda.

But Fowler makes it clear, the exhibit is not about the ship, it is about the people.

A replica of the Clotilda is on exhibit at Africatown Heritage House museum, which documents the journey of the people who arrived on one of the last slave ships to the U.S. Credit: Visit Mobile

Credit: Visit Mobile

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Credit: Visit Mobile

“Exhibitions have the power to close the gaps of space and time to bring visitors face to face with history,” Fowler said. “Our hope is visitors to this exhibition will come away with a sense that the group of 110 men, women and children are not distant and remote stories, but that they are very near. This story reminds us … that the past is very much the present.”

The story of Africatown and the Clotilda is alive today because descendants have kept it alive. And just like the stories told in other museums we visited, of enslaved people who came through Charleston Harbor, of notable residents in Macon, of the men, women and children who were lynched or incarcerated, their tale is woven into the fabric of the country.

Museums that document this history give us a place to store the joy and hurt of our past, so it will never be forgotten and can always be revered. Black history museums give us the peace of mind to know that our stories will be told in ways that are authentic and unfiltered.

And, even as Black history museums grow in number, they are distinct enough to serve varied purposes as places of validation, places of inspiration and places of education.

My daughter and I had journeyed 1,300 miles across three states in search of Black history, which is American history. We found it not just in the places we visited, but also in ourselves, through the family stories I shared on our journey, and in the people we met along the way.

Layla learned that people make history every day in their own way and their stories are just as important as the stories that make headlines. Even when she didn’t learn something new in the places that we visited, she found ways to be inspired.

When we started the trip, I wanted to make sense of the world, but instead I found confirmation of my place in it. I was reminded of the depth of my ancestors’ contributions to this country, of my responsibility to hold that history in the highest regard and of the need to keep sharing it with my daughter and the larger society.

We are still the dream and the hope of the slave, to paraphrase Maya Angelou. And we rise, we rise, we rise.


ABOUT THE SERIES

In June, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Nedra Rhone and her 12-year-old daughter took a five-day road trip to Black history museums in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. With two new institutions opening in the region this summer, Rhone saw an opportunity to examine the ways that history is being preserved in the South. She considers the museums more important than ever now, as lawmakers around the nation are limiting how race is discussed in schools. Check out her dispatches from each stop (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/). In this column and in two others — which were published Thursday and Saturday — Rhone reflects more deeply on what she and her daughter learned on their journey.

IF YOU GO

There are more than 100 institutions nationwide that seek to document some aspect of African American history, art or culture, according to recent data from World Atlas. Dozens of those institutions are in the South. Here are some of the Black history museums, civil rights centers and historic sites in Georgia and neighboring states.

Georgia

Atlanta

The APEX Museum

MLK National Historic Site

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Macon

Tubman African American Museum

Alabama

Birmingham

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Mobile

Africatown Heritage House Museum

Montgomery

Civil Rights Memorial Center

The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Rosa Parks Library and Museum

Selma

National Voting Rights Museum and Institute

Tuskegee

George Washington Carver Museum

Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site

Florida

Fort Lauderdale

Old Dillard Museum

St. Petersburg

The Woodson African American Museum

Tallahassee

The John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture

North Carolina

Greensboro

International Civil Rights Museum

South Carolina

Charleston

Old Slave Mart Museum

The International African American Museum

St. Helena Island

Penn Center National Historic Landmark District

Tennessee

Memphis

National Civil Rights Museum

Nashville

National Museum of African American Music

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

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