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Inside Historic Africatown With Descendants of Slave Ship Clotilda

From left, Ruth Ballard, lifelong Africatown resident, Joycelyn Davis, Clotilda descendant of Charlie Lewis, and Darron Patterson, Clotilda descendant of Pollee Allen, are shown at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown on Friday, May 31, 2019, in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)
By Vickii Howell
Special to the Birmingham Times

MOBILE, Ala.—For decades, a handful of ancestors and neighborhood historians held down the legends of Africatown’s founding, recalling the stories of kidnapped people ripped from Africa and forced to make a new home in a strange land.

Last month, the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) announced that a shipwreck discovered in the Mobile River Delta was almost certainly the Clotilda, a wooden vessel that carried 110 Africans to the United States in 1860, more than a half-century after the importation of slaves was declared illegal.

The finding of the slave ship replaced shame and doubt with pride and proof for ancestors and the remaining residents of the coastal community they founded—Africatown, USA, where the Africans settled when they were freed from slavery after the Civil War.

Here are stories from descendants of some who arrived in Mobile and from some current residents in Africatown, located three miles north of downtown Mobile, which had been formed by a group of 32 West Africans, who in 1860 were part of the last known illegal cargo of slaves to the United States.

The Descendants

Joycelyn Davis

“I got chills when I heard the [AHC] announce, ‘We found it,’” said Davis, a sixth-generation descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the Africans who arrived on the Clotilda.

Davis, 42, is the next in line as family historian, taking the baton from her aunt Lorna Woods, who for decades told the story of their ancestors to virtually anyone who would listen. Now they have the world’s attention. For the Lewis family and other Clotilda descendants who have quietly passed their stories down through generations, they have proof and now pride in a history that some of them used to shun, once ashamed to acknowledge slavery.

Some of those descendants are coming forward from the festival Davis organized to honor all the Clotilda Africans, not just Cudjoe Lewis, the most renowned among Africatown’s founders. His name and others are listed on a historical marker in front of Union Baptist Church.

“We are now organizing the descendants and meeting every Wednesday to make sure we are informed about what is happening with the Clotilda and to be sure we play an active role in what happens next,” Davis said.

“We want to get the word out there,” she added. “We want the world to know more about the complete story of the Clotilda and the survivors. We also want community revitalization, economic growth. That means the Africatown International Design Idea architectural competition that’s being planned—a new museum, the Africatown Blueway, whatever is done—we want it done the correct way, and we want the proceeds to revitalize the area.”

Davis organized the first annual Spirit of Our Ancestors festival in February to remember the survivors of the Clotilda, honor their families, and educate the public about the community built by the survivors when they were freed.

“I know a lot of people know about Cudjoe Lewis, but I want people to know more about [other survivors]: Charlie Lewis, Pollee Allen, Orsa Keeby, Peter Lee,” Davis said.

Clotilda’s last surviving African, Cudjoe Lewis, who died in 1935 was featured in the best-selling book “Barracoon” by the late Zora Neale Hurston, released last year.

Darron Patterson

The Clotilda find now cements the families’ stories, raising them from the level of folklore to historical facts. Those facts are still being uncovered as more descendants come forward, and as Africatown’s residents strive to maintain their physical place and its historical legacy in the face of benign neglect and industrial encroachment.

“Up to this point, it had been a question: ‘Was there really a boat?’ It wasn’t us saying that, but those who didn’t want there to be a boat,” said Patterson, a descendant of Clotilda survivor Pollee Allen. “But we knew it. We knew how we got here. Even though my side of the family didn’t tell me as much as the other families, I knew I was part of the 110” Africans who arrived on the Clotilda.

Patterson, 67, acknowledges that some in his family didn’t even want to talk about their history.

“I found out why,” he said. “Some of my folks just point-blank said, ‘I am not African,’ because they were more concerned about where we were going than where we came from. I think some of them were ashamed of how we got here, that they were treated like cattle, subhuman because of their African roots.”

Patterson has been taken out on the water’s edge to the place where the stolen Africans were disembarked in snake- and alligator-infested waters, in danger of wild animals at night while their captors hid them in darkness. Their kidnappers burned the ship to hide their crime because it was illegal in 1860 to transport Africans from their homeland for the purpose of slavery. Patterson said his ancestor and his shipmates “watched them burn the boat.”

“That had to be terrifying,” he said, “to watch the only thing you knew could get you back home being destroyed.”

Patterson said he would like to hear from the Meaher family, whose ancestor reportedly made a bet that he could secretly import Africans to America to become slaves.

“They should at least say something, … like, ‘We sincerely regret what happened with our relatives, that they stacked 110 men, women, and children on top of each other in unspeakable conditions,’” Patterson said.

Timothy Meaher, a wealthy river captain and plantation owner, reportedly made a bet in 1858 that he could bring 100 slaves from Africa and sneak them into the country, despite the 1808 federal law that made it illegal to import new slaves into the U.S. The legacy now, Patterson said, is making sure the children of the descendants fully embrace their history, all of it, even though their ancestors wanted to forget the past.

“That’s what Mobile County Training School was all about,” he said of the community school that produced some of the area’s strongest students, educators, and athletes. “We were taught to be men and women of character. [Our instructors] were more concerned about our future than how we got here.”

Mobile County Training School originally opened its doors in 1880 as a school—funded in part by Sears and Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald and renowned educator Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute—for the children of the freed slaves who arrived on the Clotilda.

The Residents

Ruth Ballard

Ballard, 83, a lifelong resident of Africatown, said she is happy the Clotilda finding is bringing some sense of peace, contentment, and closure for the descendants. She plans to check her own DNA to see if she herself might be one.

“A lot of people have called me claiming to be descendants, wanting to know when they are going to get their money and land. I never realized how many descendants there were, considering how some wanted no part of being African. Now, they are direct descendants. It’s amazing,” she said with a laugh.

The current condition of her community is no laughing matter, though. Ballard, deeply concerned about potential environmental hazards, became an environmental activist with other current and former Africatown residents in a lawsuit over possible industrial contamination. She suspects that the heavy industries that have operated for decades in the area have had some role to play in the cancer that has ravaged her siblings, in a family with no prior history of the deadly disease, she said.

Ballard remembers that the mills discharged a soot that would leave brown spots on clean clothes hanging out to dry and corrode paint off of cars: “It was nothing nice,” she said.

When the mills closed, they took the community’s vibrancy with them. Young people graduated, went to the military, and never came back.

Ballard remembers an Africatown that was healthy and vibrant. Residents rarely needed to leave their community because it was self-sustaining. There were multiple grocery stores, a fish market, clothing stores, ice cream parlors, a movie theater, doctors’ offices, two post offices, and thousands of residents who worked at the nearby paper mills. She also hopes the Clotilda find will lead to community revitalization.

“If this becomes a tourist area, it would encourage them to clean up the area, fix some of the roads, and make some businesses want to locate here,” Ballard said. “I am interested in revitalizing the community. Yes, we need a museum. When tourists come in, where are they going to go? The story needs to be told, and it needs to be told accurately.”

Anderson Flen

Like Ballard, Anderson Flen grew up in Africatown. He fondly recalls a childhood when everyone helped each other; a place where water was essential to life for fishing and drinking, where the Mobile County Training School and Union Baptist Church—founded by Cudjoe Lewis, Charlie Lewis, Peter Lee, Ossie Keeby, and other Clotilda Africans—were essential to community life.

Every space told a story, said Flen, 68, referring to the number of vacant lots in Africatown where houses used to be.

“You still have around here people who can tell you what that space represents, in terms of the people who lived there. And that’s what we have to do. You see, even though the house [is not there] we can fabricate a house to put there. More importantly, it’s about the story—and that’s what we’re here for. We can tell you where the oak trees used to be, where the china berry orchard and pecan orchards used to be.

“We can tell the stories of every individual around this whole community. We are walking storybooks about the community: all the churches, all the people, all the businesses, all those things. We can recreate those things in a very synergizing and energizing way.”

The history and legacy of Africatown is resonating on a global scale now, said Flen, president of the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association.

“It’s just a super time, when worldwide things are happening now to bring people together to make a difference. This is the epicenter of that timing because this is the last known destination of where the illegal slave trade took place.”

Flen said the find has led to healing among factions in Africatown that are now coming together because of the Clotilda’s significance.

“This time we are going to find people—in diverse areas and diverse ways—who will help us make it happen in terms of the revitalization of this community.”

Joe Womack

As head of the nonprofit organization Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe, and Sustainable (CHESS), Womack, 68, has been at the forefront of the battle against what he sees as continued industrial encroachment in what is left of Africatown. He believes the Clotilda discovery offers new hope for tourism, which will be key in turning the community around.

“I look at this thing as a new beginning,” he said. “To me, it’s like one of the Greek gods saying, ‘Here, take this Clotilda and see what you can do with it.’ All of a sudden, the ship is here, and we weren’t expecting it. Now, we’ve got to make the best use of it.”

Womack feels the finding of the Clotilda can have the same impact on Africatown and Mobile that the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Museum, has had on the city of Montgomery since opening to the public on April 26, 2018. That impact was an estimated $1.1 billion.

“That’s billion, with a B. We should be able to top that easily, double it,” Womack said with confidence. “Whatever is done here, it’s got to be done right.”

For decades, men and women before him worked to create memorials, establish trade relations with Benin, the present-day country where the Africans were stolen from, and start other efforts to bring economic revitalization to Africatown through its history. Womack says, it’s his turn now.

“It’s my goal to make sure that the people who are going to get involved in creating memorials do this thing right because, you know, this is our last chance,” he said. “I can’t be sitting back and when it’s over say, ‘You didn’t do it right.’ Then that would be my fault, you know?”

Womack said he is finally seeing unity among different groups in the Africatown community, “because everybody has been trying to do something positive.”

“Some of us have a different way of wanting to try to get it done, and that’s where some of the differences come in,” he said. “Now, people look like they might be really willing to try something different and try something better because now they can see things working.”