The Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay, a shallow inlet in the Gulf of Mexico that borders Alabama, in 1859. The ship carried 110 illegally enslaved people, as the slave trade had been banned in the United States by Congress through the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves on March 2, 1807. The stories of the Africans who arrived on that ship, and the generations that followed, are finally shared in Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant, now playing on Netflix. The new film recognizes the people who survived Clotilda, and how this inhumane historical moment shaped the lives of their descendants.
After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, who had been brought to the United States on the Clotilda, banded with his African brothers to establish a community at Magazine Point, north of Mobile, Alabama. The area became known as Africatown, where Clotilda survivors and other freed people returned to their West African traditions, which included speaking in Yoruba until the 1950s. The community was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Lewis shared his experiences with author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927. Her subsequent book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," written in 1931, was finally published nearly a century later in 2018.
With major real estate along waterways, the area of Africatown has been an attractive land grab for entrepreneurs, with little thought to its inhabitants. In 2017, its residents sued International Paper, the last owner of a paper mill that had operated on the land for more than 50 years. Citing that the company's waste dumping had contaminated and polluted the area’s air and water, it still remains a crisis in Africatown today.
Obama’s media company Higher Ground Productions and Participant, a global media company that inspires audiences to engage in positive social change, have partnered with Netflix and launched the Descendent film impact campaign to honor and support descendants of the Clotilda.
The campaign aims to preserve Black historical narratives like the one in Africatown and highlight environmental justice efforts. Other organizations, such as The Big We, a media company; Kinkofa, which offers digital tools to trace the family histories of African descendants; and the Solutions Project, a grassroots organization to combat the climate crisis, have joined the project. The goal is to support the subjects of the film as well as community organizations in Africatown as they build a sustainable infrastructure that advances historical preservation and pushes for environmental justice.
The film has also launched DescendantFilm.com, an impact hub that encourages people to learn more about Africatown. It also introduced Rememory, a mobile and web-based application designed to help people document and securely archive their own family stories.