Clotilda: How The Survivors Of The Last American Slave Ship Built A Black Town For Ex-Slaves


Source: Disney / Disney

A lot of Black history comes in the form of word of mouth, tales passed down from generation to generation for the sole purpose of persevering a legacy. One of those family tales is the story of the Clotilda, the last American slave ship to arrive in the U.S. and brave Black folks who created Africatown, one of the first known communities owned and operated by ex-slaves from the Clotilda.

Beneath the muddy waters of the Mobile River lies the shipwrecked Clotilda, the last known slave ship to bring slaves from Africa. Unearthed in 2019 by Diving With A Purpose, the story of Clotilda doesn’t just end with a sunken relic from the transatlantic slave trade.

In fact, it’s just the beginning.  Through resilience to preserve, survivors of Clotilda cultivated their own thriving community called Africatown. As we explore the story of Clotilda, we uncover the rich history of a family and community fighting hard to endure their ancestor’s legacy.

During the summer of 1860, a ship carrying 110 African slaves illegally slipped into the bay. The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed after the signing of The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807, But this didn’t stop devilishly ambitious White men from risking illegal slave runs to Africa to keep up with the high demand for slave labor during the booming cotton trade. Money was the game and slaves were how you made it.

A plantation owner named Timothy Meaher and his captain, William Foster, took the risk and sailed from Alabama to the African Kingdom of Dahomey, bringing captured Africans back to the states under the cover of night, according to The Smithsonian. The Clotilda was then ordered upstream, then burned and sunk to hide its illegal activities from the world.

After slavery was abolished in 1865, the displaced Africans from the Clotilda wanted very much to get back to Africa, but were never allowed to afford the trip. So, established a community as free Americans, called Africatown, where they kept many of their African traditions, becoming a tight-knit, independent community a little north of Mobile, Alabama. Africatown grew into a thriving town complete with a chief, a system of laws, churches and a school.


Source: Disney / Disney

Cudjo Lewis, one of the founders of Africatown and survivors of the Clotilda, wanted nothing more than to persevere the legacy of his people, so he began to tell his story to everyone who would listen, including famous author Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote a book about him called “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”

Although Cudjo Lewis was successful in getting his story told, he still yearned to return to Africa to be reunited with the family he was taken from so many years prior. Cudjo Lewis died in 1935 and was never able to make the trip back to his homeland, but fortunately, his ancestors understood the assignment.

Altevese Rosario, a descendant of Cudjo, teamed up with National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts to make Cudjo’s dream of returning home to Africa a reality.

National Geographic’s “Clotilda: The Return Home” documentary chronicles the account of two survivors of the last American slave ship, Cudjo Lewis and Gumpa Lee, who both dreamed of returning to their ancestral home over 150 years ago. Now, their descendants are fulfilling that dream embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

NewsOne had a chance to sit down with Altevese and Tara to talk about the documentary, its legacy, and why it’s an important watch for not just Black people but for all Americans.


Source: Disney / Disney

Bilal Morris: A lot of Black history comes in the form of word of mouth, tales passed down generations. Talk about the importance of the family stories of Clotilda

Altevese Rosario: For myself, my family members, and several other descendants, we’ve always known our history, you know, from a small child. I grew up always knowing, you know, there’s a picture of Cudjo, and that was always in our house and in every relative’s house. And my grandmother got firsthand accounts of his life from him, which was amazing. And so she sat at his feet, listening to his stories of his homeland and how he lived and his family and even his yearning to return home. My brother and my cousins and I sat at her feet in the very same way, hearing our family’s story. So our now ancestors have passed our family’s history down orally. But also fortunately, Cudjo wanted everyone to hear of his life’s journey, and he wanted everyone to know of his yearning to be home, and so much so that he hoped that it would eventually return him home.

With us having this story, we know exactly who we are, exactly where and what we come from. We don’t have to listen to the false narrative that is told about us.

BM: Can you just speak a little bit about the historical significance of Africatown

AR: Yeah. So, first and foremost, the only town of its kind, right, in this country, which in itself is huge. And the fact that you had these just under three dozen Africans who all tried to return home, and when they weren’t able to, they said, you know what? Not only are we not going to allow that to defeat us, but we are going to bring home here.

We are going to operate in the way that we know to operate. We are going to govern ourselves in the way that we know is pure and honors our self and our history. We’re going to teach our children our language and our culture.

To have that intactness is something that roots a people in a way that nothing else can, in a way that builds community in a way that nothing else can.

BM: Tell me about your emotions and feelings when you first stepped foot on African soil

AR: So the emotions are welling up now. Because it’s something that my family and I had talked about for years doing. To have it actually come to fruition was unbelievable. We felt him encouraging us, we felt him pushing us, uplifting us. And when we touched soil, when I tell you, it was literally like traveling a long journey and then finally coming back to your residence and in that piece of… [sigh of relief], thats what it was. It was like you are home. Not the place where you live, but you’re home.

BM: Tara, I don’t wanna spoil this amazing documentary so I won’t talk details, but what is one thing you want viewers to take from this amazing doc?

Tara Roberts: I’d say particularly if you’re African American and you’re watching this video or this documentary, and you are like me and you’re not able to trace your roots back to a specific place on the continent, and that’s hard for us. You know, there was that 1870s brick wall. So the US census did not track identifying details of enslaved people before 1870. So it’s very hard for us to chase, to trace back.

So this journey, for me, particularly for other African Americans who are watching it, is our journey home, too. Like, that’s how I felt as a visitor, but not a visitor on the journey, because it was my journey, but it wasn’t my journey. I think we came away with a sense of joy, a sense of the accomplishment of our people, with a sense of connection, with a sense of beauty. 

This is a story of triumph. It’s a story of home. It’s a story of belonging, of welcome. And that is powerful. 

National Geographic’s “Clotilda: The Return Home” will premiere on  Disney+ and Hulu Tuesday, June 18, 2024.


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