The challenge and history of the Clotilda

South professor Kern Jackson helps unearth the history for the movie 'Descendant'

Dr. Kern Jackson (right) meets with descendants of the Clotilda in Africatown. Photo by Chad Riley.

Dr. Kern Jackson was 5 years old when he first visited Africatown.

Jackson himself is not a descendant of the Africans illegally captured and transported to Mobile on the Clotilda, considered to be the last slave ship that landed in America. Jackson is originally from Washington, D.C., but he had relatives in Mobile. His grandmother and his godmother taught at the Mobile County Training School, then a high school and now a middle school.

That early exposure to the community established by the slaves and their descendants after the Civil War grew into a lifetime of community engagement and eventually filmmaking. Today Jackson is the director of African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and is co-writer and co-producer of the documentary “Descendant.”

These days, the award-winning documentary, the involvement of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, and the discovery of the burned wreckage of the Clotilda in the Mobile River have put an international spotlight on what had been a relatively overlooked part of Mobile area history.

“Mobile is ate up with its history, with its existence. You cannot walk downtown without bumping your head on a piece of signage about what somebody did or what was there that’s no longer there,” Jackson says.

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“Africatown is just sort of out there doing its own thing. They’ve been putting on programs for 145 years in Africatown celebrating the Clotilda.”

Monument to Cudjoe Lewis in the Old Plateau Cemetery. Photo by Chad Riley.

The Story

Slave trading was outlawed internationally in 1808, but in 1859 Timothy Meaher made a now infamous bet that he could smuggle a shipload of slaves into Mobile. He hired Capt. William Foster to sail the schooner Clotilda to the African kingdom of Dahomey, now the country of Benin. Foster bought 110 captives and transported them back to Mobile in horrific conditions in the cargo hold of the 90-foot ship. The 108 survivors were enslaved on a nearby plantation for the next five years, and the ship was burned and sunk near Twelvemile Island.

After the war, the group tried to find a way to return to their homeland but were unsuccessful. They eventually convinced Meaher to sell them some land on which Africatown was founded and established their own community. Through oral history, their stories were passed to their descendants, some of whom still live there.

Familiar with the community from childhood, Jackson grew up to become a folklorist specializing in the Southeast American festival. He moved to Mobile in the mid-1990s, intending to study the city’s Mardi Gras Carnival traditions.

“My aunt said, you need to study this. I said, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘You know, Plateau, Magazine Point, Happy Hill.’ I said OK. She drove me out there and introduced me to some folks. Come to find out that Africatown, at the same time we had Mardi Gras, the last two weeks there’s an overlapping cultural festival and activity going on to celebrate Clotilda.”

At one point Jackson served as the minority curator at Mobile’s history museum, and he did oral history interviews for a project that was part of the city’s Tricentennial celebration.

“The notion of the folklore, the whole narrative and the history of the Clotilda and its significance, sort of piqued my interest,” he says. “And when I did some work for the Tricentennial, I interviewed people in self-identified Black neighborhoods, and that was one of them.”

Africatown residents also told some of the most interesting stories, he says. Although Jackson left Mobile to pursue a graduate degree, he stayed in touch with the people he had met. He returned in 2003 to take a position at the University of South Alabama.

Over the years Jackson maintained his ties with Africatown, and he organized a couple of festivals. Meanwhile, his interest in Carnival history and customs led to a collaboration with Margaret Brown, a filmmaker who directed “Order of Myths,” a 2008 documentary about Mobile’s Mardi Gras.

Jackson served as historical researcher for “Order of Myths.” It took a good look at the continuing separation of Black and white celebrations and traditions, as well as the beginnings of the races coming together.

That work led to the collaboration with Brown on “Descendant.” People whose ancestors were on the Clotilda told their stories, and Jackson appears in the film as well.

“Descendant” received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, picked up the film for distribution, and the media company Participant is also involved. It has been shown at more than a dozen film festivals, Jackson says.

Kern Jackson talks with Clotilda descendant Vernetta Henson. Photo by Chad Riley.

What Happens Now?

There are ongoing discussions about making Africatown a historical tourism site and about whether any of the Clotilda itself can be salvaged from the water and mud. Some basic infrastructure in Africatown is sorely needed — streetlights and sidewalks, for example. Running water wasn’t available until the 1960s.

Once a bustling, albeit segregated, community with grocery stores, shops and a passion for youth baseball that yielded major-leaguers like Cleon Jones, Africatown has steadily declined. Just 220 families live there now. Africatown’s proximity to heavy industry and the cancer rates among the descendants are major environmental concerns.

It hasn’t been entirely ignored. The area is part of a National Parks Blueway system and the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail. A delegation from Benin visited in the 1980s to apologize for its role in the enslavement, and another visited after the site of the Clotilda wreck was discovered.

However, basic communication needs improvement. Environmental journalist Ben Raines has documented his search for the actual wreck in his book “The Last Slave Ship,” and tells of years of misdirection by Timothy Meaher and the lack of cooperation by the Meaher family and its descendants.

But Jackson says many people in Africatown have always known where the ship was burned and sunk. They didn’t have the level of water access and diving skills needed to search for the Clotilda, nor did they have the scientific expertise now being directed to it, but the location seems to have been something of an open secret.

As for business redevelopment, Jackson wants to know why Africatown doesn’t have a grocery store or even one of the Dollar Generals that seem to pop up all over Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Montgomery’s documentation of the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement in Alabama through The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice stands as an example of what the development of Africatown could become. But again, some soul-searching conversations will need to take place among Mobile-area government and business leaders as well as the people who still live there. Jackson also hopes the university will play a role.

“Everybody wants to do something like [Montgomery]. But the trick is, how do you do something like that from a social justice standpoint?” says Jackson. “In Montgomery, they just said the hell with it. Tell it all. I’m not too sure that’s Mobile’s position.”

As for the role of “Descendant” in sparking some of these conversations, Jackson says this: “I’m hoping that this film is for that middle-schooler who’s going to become that city planner, who’s going to be able to come up with and execute that game plan. And I hope that person looks like the people in Africatown.

“What I hope the film does is it helps kick the can down the road, to help give democracy – a small d – a better opportunity to thrive and function in the way that our founding fathers intended.” 

Jane Nicholes and Chad Riley are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Daphne and he in Mobile.

This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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