Africatown's Clotilda Search Uncovers Another Mystery

Well, as you all know by now, the recent search for the sunken slave ship, the Clotilda, proved to be negative. However, what was uncovered may turn out to be an even bigger find than the missing last slave ship itself.

When it was first announced in February that the Clotilda had been found, I had several objectives for the Africatown community in mind. Those objectives included: To insure that a legitimate search for the Clotilda was being done, that Africatown would not be left out in the cold with nothing to show if the Clotilda was found, that the Africatown community would discover new found friends from outside of the city of Mobile, that the Africatown community was kept well informed of things happening and not kept in the dark of what was going on during the Clotilda search, that the Africatown story could be spread farther than ever while the eyes of the world was fixed on the Africatown Community and if this search turned up negative, the search for the Clotilda would continue as soon as possible.


Mission Accomplished on All Fronts 

Back in the late 1990's, when the previous search for the last slave ship, the Clotilda, was done, the search revealed nothing. After that search was complete there were some rumbling throughout the community that this search was not legitimate because it was financed by the same family that was responsible for that last slave shipment back in 1860. After all, if your story has always been that there was no such shipment, how eager are you to prove yourself wrong.

I was fortunate enough to meet everyone involved in the most recent search for the Clotilda and they were all true professionals in their areas and damned determined to find that ship. I did not know it before now, but there has never been a slave ship found off the coast of America. This would have been the first slave ship to be found off the coast of America and they all wanted to be part of that bit of American history.

Included in the list of those that came in town to search for the Clotilda were two divers that located the Titanic, the President of the National Black Divers Association, two divers and researchers from the University of Florida, Ben Raines who made the discovery, two people from the Smithsonian African-American History Museum, two people from the Smithsonian Slave Wreck Projects, a representative from the National Park Service Submerged Resources Projects and a host of people from the Alabama Historical Commission who financed the expedition. That impressive list of participants in the Clotilda search says a lot about the quality of detailed work that was performed.   

When it was first announced that The Clotilda had been found, Mobile's city council voted that any remains to the Clotilda would be placed on exhibit in the museum located in Mobile's Municipal Park. That decision would not help the Africatown community because Africatown has dreams of its own community museum. To have that museum built around the remains of the Clotilda would be a tremendous spark for the revitalization of the community.

Mobile's current administration has preached "One Mobile", but to place the Clotilda in West Mobile while Africatown is in North Mobile would only split tourism. The tourist attraction is the Africatown community, not West Mobile. In addition, If possible, some part of the Clotilda should be placed in the Smithsonian African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C. They have promised to dedicate a section of their museum to Africatown and to have a piece of the Clotilda placed there would be appropriate. 

Those that came to Mobile to search for the Clotilda made a positive impression throughout the community. Those that came down from Montgomery with the Alabama Historical Commission have promised to come back on a regular basis to help out with our Africatown revitalization. They have already sent information about agencies and funds available to assist the community during our revitalization process. The president of the Black Divers Association has promised to help the community with its swimming program including teaching scuba diving to youngsters. Those from the African-American History Museum will return to continue their search for interviews from community elders and search for Africatown artifacts to be placed in Africatown's section of the History Museum.

During the week that everyone was in town, tons of information was being passed on a daily basis. Everyone involved did an outstanding job of keeping us locals up to date as to what was going on. There was a press conference conducted before the search began and a press conference conducted after the results of the search were known. In addition, they attended a community meeting at night to inform the community about their findings and answer all questions. They even attended and more than participated in a community meeting during the middle of the day. That kind of community participation showed a caring attitude toward the people of Africatown. 

The possible discovery of the last slave ship, the Clotilda, was announced to the world on the CBS Morning News Network. That in itself was priceless exposure for the community. However, it did not end with that announcement. It continued for the next two months or until the results were made known. Before that announcement was made on CBS, it is possible that better than 50 percent of those born in Mobile had never heard of the Africatown story. Even within the Africatown community itself, the Africatown Story was not taught in the schools or talked about in public.

The only person that talked about it was Mr. Henry C. Williams who used to tell the story in his young men's Sunday school class. However, when he tried to talk about it in church they would shut him down. Consequently, the Africatown story has not been talked about much within the community other than the family descendants of those last slaves. 

After this search for the Clotilda was complete, it was announced that another search for the Clotilda would begin as soon as the funding could be acquired to begin the search. State Senator Vivian Figures has already gotten a proclamation approved through the Alabama legislature that calls for the Clotilda to be found and to save and revitalize Africatown.


The Mystery Remains

Although the Clotilda was not found, what was uncovered may be and even bigger mystery than the missing slave ship itself. Satellite x-rays showed that there are as many as 25 sunken ships located in a 5-mile radius of the area they were searching buried in about 40 feet of water.

This graveyard of ships has not been plotted on any maritime maps which is very unusual. Most maritime shipyards, bone yards or sunken ships have been carefully documented throughout the years so as to avoid accidents from things hidden beneath the surface. Was this an uncharted bone yard for old ships or ships that sink during a hurricane or something more sinister?

A total of 50 years passed (1810-1860) between the time our government put teeth into its federal no-slave trade laws. Was some one illegally making regular slave shipments before that last one, the Clotilda, was caught? Could that area up the Mobile River be a popular place to sink old unwanted slave ships? More importantly, could there be some physical remains of slaves still shackled to one or more of those sunken ships?  Stay tuned.