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The Last Slave Ship

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The last ship participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade to enter American waters has been found and the whole thing is highly fascinating.

Last week, all such doubts evaporated. A team of researchers confirmed that a submerged wooden wreck lodged in the mud a few miles up the Mobile River from the Africatown settlement was almost certainly the Clotilda, the schooner that had carried the 110 kidnapped Africans to Alabama from what is now the nation of Benin in 1860.

Historians lauded the discovery as a crucial missing piece of the broader American story. In Africatown, a semi-isolated clutch of cottages three miles north of downtown Mobile, the news carried a particular kind of heft. Something physical, something measurable, was now attached to the tale they had heard all their lives.

“Now it’s like letting us know that it’s really real,” said Ms. Harris, 58. “It’s real.”

While it is too soon to say whether the Clotilda will be raised or restored — and if it is, where exactly it will go — the people of Africatown are already dreaming that the ship’s bones will reside with them, serving as a key not only to the past but to the future, attracting tourists and sparking a much-needed renaissance.

“We think it could be something like Jamestown,” said Joe Womack, 68, referring to the early colonial settlement and tourist draw in Virginia. “Jamestown and Africatown.”

The story of the Clotilda’s final voyage began with an Alabama plantation and steamboat owner, Timothy Meaher. As tensions between North and South approached a breaking point before the Civil War, Mr. Meaher made a wager that he could bring enslaved Africans to the heart of American cotton country despite a federal ban on importation that had been in effect since 1808. The bet grew out of an argument among passengers on one of Mr. Meaher’s steamships over whether transporting enslaved people from Africa to the United States was still possible.

The stakes were high: Such smuggling was punishable by hanging. To avoid detection, the captain of the schooner, William Foster, set the vessel ablaze and sank it after its human cargo was unloaded.

The captives were men, women and children from multiple cultures who spoke multiple languages. They had endured a trans-Atlantic voyage of 45 days, during which they had been stripped of clothing and given only meager daily sips of water, according to “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” a book on the subject by the historian Sylviane Anna Diouf. Some of the captives were sold upriver. Mr. Meaher and his family kept 60 of them.

As fascinating as the story of the ship is, the story of the survivors all gathering together in one place and continuing a community for 150 years is also a great story. However, Africatown is dying, with little economic opportunity and most young people moving away. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying to keep it alive. And who is the head of that effort?

“We’re a food desert,” said Cleon Jones, 76, the former New York Mets outfielder who grew up in Africatown and returned in the 1970s after helping lead the team to its storied 1969 World Series victory. He now serves as a kind of unofficial mayor.

Mr. Jones said the population has diminished to less than 2,000 from a peak of 12,000 a few decades ago. Lovingly tended little homes abut others that are boarded up, their lots gone to weeds.


Cleon Jones! A dying town with weeds springing up to choke out the life of everything around it? Wait, are we talking about his home town or the Mets here?

Anyway, Africatown would be an amazing addition to the National Park Service, either as a National Monument or a National Historic Site. The ship would be the centerpiece and then the story of the town and African cultural survival would be the real educational piece. There’s tons of potential here. This nation at its best would move in this direction. However, this nation is right now very much not at its best, so we will see.

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