Back in 2019, our team started covering the remarkable finding of the Clotilda – a slave ship that had sunk to the bottom of an Alabama river. This vessel was the final known ship to have transported enslaved Africans to the United States back in 1860. While the fate of the 110 individuals, including men, women, and children, aboard the Clotilda is well-documented, their stories have been passed down throughout generations by their descendants, many of whom still reside just a short distance away from the discovery site in a community known as Africatown.
The Mobile River had hidden a heinous act for over 160 years. In 1860, the Clotilda arrived at this murky stretch of water after a treacherous 45-day journey from West Africa with 110 enslaved individuals on board.
As Joycelyn Davis reminisces, she vividly imagines herself aboard a ship, listening to the soothing sound of the waves and the water. She can’t help but feel a sense of uncertainty, not knowing where the ship is headed.
Direct descendants of an African man named Oluale, who was enslaved and had his name changed to Charlie Lewis by his owner, include Joycelyn Davis, Lorna Gail Woods, and Thomas Griffin. A photograph from around 1900 depicts Oluale. Kupollee, whose African name was Pollee Allen, is an ancestor of Jeremy Ellis and Darron Patterson and is seen in a sketch that is over a hundred years old.
Darron Patterson posed a thought-provoking question – how many of us could survive being in a situation where we had no clothes, had to eat where we defecated, and were only allowed out of the cargo hold for one day a week for two months? It’s a harrowing thought, and one wonders how many people have the mental strength to endure such conditions without losing their sanity.
Pat Frazier’s great-great grandmother, Lottie Dennison, may not have any photographs in existence, but Caprinxia Wallace and her mother Cassandra have a remarkable collection of pictures featuring their ancestor, Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, as captured and preserved by his enslaver.
As a child, my mother would often share with me the tales that her father had passed down to her about Cudjo. Caprinxia Wallace fondly recalls this tradition, where her family would gather and listen to the stories that had been handed down through generations about this legendary figure.
Anderson Cooper asked Cassandra if it was important for her to pass along that knowledge.
Cassandra Wallace emphasized the significance of reciting Kossulu, Clotilda, and Cudjo Lewis, as her father would make them repeat it during their childhood.
Timothy Meaher, a wealthy businessman, initiated the story of the Clotilda by hiring Captain William Foster to smuggle a shipload of captive Africans from the Kingdom of Dahomey, which is now known as Benin, to Mobile. This was an illegal activity, and the Clotilda was used to carry out this inhumane act.
Upon their arrival, Meaher and his accomplices were assigned to different tasks. Meaher’s brother, Byrnes, and others were also involved in the operation. Captain Foster stated that he had burned and sunk the Clotilda, but the exact location of the wreckage remained a mystery until 2018.
Local reporter Ben Raines discovered the Clotilda resting in approximately 20 feet of water near land still belonging to the Meaher family.
Ben Raines clutched the journal tightly, knowing that it held the crucial information needed to locate the ship.
For seven months, Raines diligently searched for clues in Captain Foster’s journal, which is available at Mobile’s public library.
Anderson Cooper asked if we are almost over it now.
James Delgado confirms that they are approaching the target.
In 2020, maritime archaeologist James Delgado accompanied us on a visit to the wreck.
The man confirmed that the sonar was activated and gave the go-ahead to drop.
With its murky appearance, the only way to locate the ship is by making use of a sonar device. The water is extremely turbid and prevents any visual sighting of the ship.
Anderson Cooper was amazed and exclaimed, “Wow, the ship is clearly visible!”
James Delgado confirmed that the ship in question was indeed Clotilda.
The bow is visible mere feet below the surface and can be seen from both sides of the hull. The Clotilda measures 86 feet in length, however, the stern is submerged deeply in mud.
Anderson Cooper remarked that there was nothing visible.
The diver responded with a simple answer, “Nothing.”
As we explored the wreck, the underwater visibility was non-existent. Our camera could only capture a glimpse of a single wooden plank.
In 2019, James Delgado and his team, accompanied by diver Jay Haigler, revisited the Clotilda wreckage to conduct a thorough exploration of the site. They meticulously extracted 98 fragments of the ship for further examination.
James Delgado was impressed with the discovery, stating, “This is a very good find…this is off of the stern.”
During their expedition, researchers made a significant discovery, uncovering the intact cargo hold of a slave ship for the very first time, as reported by Delgado. Surprisingly, they also found that the hold was smaller than they had previously believed, which adds to the historical significance of this discovery, including this part of the steering system.
According to James Delgado, the only way to accommodate all those people was to install posts and platforms a foot and a half apart and cram them in.
With Delgado’s assistance, we were able to produce an animation that vividly depicts the discovery of the posts still standing in the cargo hold, along with the wooden platforms that served as the cramped and dark confinement for the 110 prisoners. These individuals were forced to lie shoulder to shoulder and stacked on top of each other for the entire 45-day journey.
According to James Delgado, the British had established a specific protocol for this task. It involved using a measurement of one and a half feet by five feet for a man, one foot and four inches for a woman, and one foot for a child.
“Would a child only get one foot of body space?” Anderson Cooper questioned.
According to James Delgado, the use of bureaucratic and cruel calculations could result in cramming 110 people in a space with horrific conditions.
Jay Haigler had experience diving on slave ships in the past, although he had never done so inside a cargo hold.
Jay Haigler experienced a profound sense of calmness as he entered the cargo hold. He felt the presence of the 110 ancestors, and this feeling washed over him. After he emerged from the cargo hold, he felt like a different person altogether.
Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you really feel that?”
Jay Haigler described the experience as nothing short of spiritual. He emphasized the word ‘absolutely’ to convey the intensity of his emotions.
Delgado’s team managed to retrieve some of the ship’s fragments, and these are currently being exhibited at the Africatown Heritage House. This museum opened in July and is located just a few miles from the wreck.
Around 1868, 30 Africans from the Clotilda founded Africatown, three years after being emancipated. Africatown remains the only surviving community in America established by Africans, and to this day, some of their descendants still consider it their home.
Anderson Cooper inquired about the current residents of the place, “Who lives here now?”