“Clotilda: The Exhibition” at the Africatown Heritage House officially opened on July 8, 2023, in Mobile, Alabama. The 2,500 square feet of rich, multi-sensory space includes pieces of the Clotilda, the last-known ship to illegally bring African people into the United States. It is coupled with compelling stories and images from Africatown, the vibrant community that arose in spite of its origin story. 

In 1860, the Clotilda carried 110 Africans into Mobile’s Mobile Bay, despite an act of Congress that made it illegal for Americans to engage in the slave trade between nations since 1808.

When the Emancipation Proclamation granted Clotilda survivors their freedom, about a third of the 110 pooled their limited resources to purchase land and transformed it into Africatown, an independent community. 

In this private enclave, they continued to speak their native languages, established their own set of governance and maintained their African identities while building churches, schools and businesses. It was the only community governed entirely by African-born Americans in the late 19th century.

Jeremy Ellis, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association and a descendant of Clotilda survivors Pollee and Rose Allen, reveals why this exhibit is an integral part of preserving Africatown’s heritage. 

“The mission of the Clotilda Descendants Association is to honor our ancestors; preserve our culture, landmarks, and legacies; and educate future generations of descendants and the community,” he shares. 

“The opening of the Heritage House will keep the memories and traditions alive in Africatown. The Clotilda Exhibition draws attention to the story of its 110 survivors. Visitors will learn about the individual stories of each family’s ancestor aboard Clotilda and the crime that was committed in 1860.”

The opening joins two existing events that commemorate the memories and traditions of Africatown. The Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival, founded by Joycelyn Davis, produced An Ocean in My Bones for the second year. Written and directed by Terrence Spivey, the play chronicles the lives of the 110 Clotilda shipmates from their capture to the founding of Africatown. The Landing, an annual honoring the arrival of the 110 survivors aboard Clotilda, also took place on July 8.  

“We read the names of the 110 survivors and have descendants share stories of their ancestors who were aboard Clotilda,” Ellis explains. “We conclude the event with a wreath-laying ceremony.” This year’s wreath-laying ceremony was held at the site of the sunken schooner Clotilda. 

The ultimate goal of the Clotilda Descendants Association is to honor its ancestors and educate future generations of descendants and others about the 110. Ellis declares: “It aligns with our promise to ‘Never Let the World Forget.’” 

Diver Kamau Sadiki of Dive With a Purpose. Image: Alabama Historical Commission.

Kamau Sadiki, a lead instructor for Diving With a Purpose, which participated in the verification of the shipwreck, tells EBONY: “Probably the most memorable discovery of the Clotilda shipwreck is that it is about seventy percent intact. You can actually see the hull outline of a 163-year-old ship from side-scan sonar images.”

The find includes the cargo hold space where the captured Africans endured the horrors of the almost three-month Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1860. No other such artifact or material spaces exist in the historical or archaeological record from that harrowing time. 

Since Spring 2020, the History Museum of Mobile has been curating, constructing and preparing to operate an exhibition at the newly-constructed Africatown Heritage House that details the stories of the 110 men, women and children brought to Mobile aboard the Clotilda. For more information, visit clotida.com.