It was a phone call from a friend that led environmental journalist and filmmaker Ben Raines on the journey to uncovering history in the black waters of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
It was Raines who located the sunken remains of the Clotilda, the last known American slave ship in the shallow waters near Twelvemile Island in the Mobile River, but the journey to discovery was not an easy one.
Raines joined a panel of guests on the Troy Campus on Tuesday evening for the University’s McPherson-Mitchell Lecture in Southern History to discuss the Clotilda, and the still-active community of the slaves’ descendants in Africatown outside of Mobile, Alabama. Presented by the University’s Department of History and Philosophy, this year’s event was expanded to two nights to include the panel discussion and a screening of “Afrikan by Way of American” with the film’s producer and Executive Director of Hiztorical Visions Productions Theo M. Moore II, a TROY alumnus, which was held on Monday night.
The panel, which was moderated by history lecturer and event organizer Dr. Kathryn Tucker, included Jeremy Ellis, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, Stacye Hathorn, state archeologist for the Alabama Historical Commission, Gen. Walter Givhan of the Alabama Historical Commission, and former TROY Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Economic Development, Moore and Raines.
“My involvement with the Clotilda started with a phone call,” Raines said. “I had been an investigative reporter for the newspaper in Mobile for about 20 years and never once thought of looking for the Clotilda. A friend of mine called me up one day and said, ‘I just heard a guy on the radio,’ which turned out to be the city historian of Mobile, and he said, ‘If we could ever find the Clotilda, it would solve one of the greatest maritime mysteries.”
Raines admits he thought the idea of him searching for the ship was ridiculous and likened it to “looking for pirate treasure.”
“We hung up the phone, and, of course, I typed Clotilda into Google and read everything I could find online,” Raines said. “Then, I ordered all the relevant history books before I got up from the computer. I was totally hooked. That was in the summer of 2017, and I ultimately laid hands on the ship in April of 2018.”
The friend thought Raines might be able to find it because of his knowledge of the area. Raines also leads a nature in the big swamp where the ship was in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and had previously written a book about the area called “Saving America’s Amazon.”
Raines’ search for the Clotilda was not without its setbacks and failures. Following clues from his research, Raines discovered a shipwrecked schooner from the 1850s on Jan. 2, 2018, after a storm left the water levels close to four feet lower than normal. Raines wrote a story about the discovery noting that the shipwreck could be that of the Clotilda, which went viral the day it was published. After the wreck was further researched by archeologists, it was discovered the ship was much bigger than the Clotilda and was made from different materials than the slave ship.
“We found that it could not be the Clotilda, and so they had a big meeting in Africatown and announced that this wasn’t the Clotilda. I had been at Africatown the day my first story came out and people were cheering, people were crying,” he said. “The archeologists go through explaining all of the ways that the first ship I found could not be the Clotilda and it was pretty devastating to me to have to stand there and hear it.”
As Raines left the meeting disappointed, he was encouraged by an Africatown resident not to give up on the search, an experience he said felt like “an anointing” for the mission of finding the Clotilda.
A week later, he resumed his search. With the help of the modern surveying equipment from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Marine Science program, Raines changed his tactics, searching for the Clotilda on the back side of Twelvemile Island. Eleven wrecks were located, none of which were the Clotilda. As the group, thinking the effort had been for naught, began to pack up their diving gear, it was the trip’s dive safety officer who noticed something odd on the chart.
“He pointed to something on the chart, and I said it looked like a shoe. He said to him that it looked like a ship,” he said. “We called the lab, got the coordinates and went to check it out. No one else would get in the water. It was the end of the day and it was cold. A cold wetsuit is a miserable event but I had been internationally humiliated, so I got in the water and started moving logs off of it. Then, I went down and I felt a piece of wood that was cut and hewn and squared off on the sides. I pulled on it, it came up in my hand and I swam to the surface with it. That was the first piece of the Clotilda to see the light of day.”
Raines recorded his experiences in the search for the ship in the book “The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning.”
After finding the ship, the process of confirming it, indeed, was the Clotilda and researching the discovery truly began with the Alabama Historical Commission.
Hathorn said the process of confirming the wreck was the Clotilda began as a process of elimination.
“By using the scientific method, you assume something, in this case the shipwreck, is not something at first,” Hathorn said. There are a lot of shipwrecks just in this one area, so it was a process of elimination. We knew the dimensions. Is it the right dimensions? Yes. Okay. We can’t knock it down there. We know what it was made of. Is it made of oak with pine planking? So, we took samples of oak and pine and we sent them off to disparate labs. They came back as not only oak and pine, but southern pine. So, we were good there. It was the right vessel shape. We knew that it was a Gulf Coast schooner. So, you know, we were looking at all of these different aspects, and we just couldn’t knock it down. And the more research we do, the surer we become.”
Truly identifying the ship was made more difficult by the fact that after the Clotilda arrived in Mobile in July of 1860, delivering 110 African men, women and children to be sold into slavery, it was burned and scuttled by Capt. William Foster. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had been made illegal in 1808, so in an effort to cover up the evidence of the trip, Foster and his employer, wealthy shipyard owner and steamboat captain Timothy Meaher, decided the best course of action was to get rid of the evidence by destroying the 86-foot schooner.
Hathorn said the Commission was not only charged with identification of the vessel, but also, ultimately, its preservation, which is now an ongoing process.
“Last May, we went out and we did a rather large investigation to collect a lot of scientific data that will help us make the best decisions possible for preservation long term preservation of this incredible resource,” she said.
For former TROY Senior Vice Chancellor Walter Givhan, who was chair of the Historical Commission at the time, the discovery represented the opportunity of a lifetime. Even greater, however, the discovery of the Clotilda provided a key opportunity to connect with the stories of the people involved.
“In my role on the Historical Commission, my real job was to help lead those stewardship efforts that ultimately connect to people – people who are here now, but also people whose stories go all the way to those enslaved people who were brought over on this vessel that make all of this real,” Givhan said. “The story is absolutely unique and remarkable – one that is just endlessly fascinating. We looked at this as stewardship; we had to fulfill the role of the Historical Commission, which is to preserve, protect and interpret the historical resources of this state and to be good stewards of them. And, lo and behold, here, falling into our laps is one of the greatest treasures that we could ever imagine, something that exists nowhere else, that is tied to a remarkable story.”
For Givhan, one of the greatest experiences was being able to confirm to the descendants of the enslaved people that the ship discovered was indeed the Clotilda.
“To be there and to see those faces and to see the emotion, literally tears, and understand how this validated that whole experience, that this was not a tall tale or a legend,” he said. “This was real. It focused attention from all quarters in a way that hasn’t been focused on this story, and I was just happy to be a part of it.”
The Clotilda discovery has helped to focus attention on the descendants of the enslaved people aboard the ship. For Jeremy Ellis, a direct descendant of two of the enslaved Africans aboard the Clotilda, the story is personal, but also has tremendous significance from a historical perspective.
“As a descendant, I consider myself a memory keeper – someone who wants to preserve the history and the legacy of my ancestors,” Ellis said. “A lot of times when we think or talk about slavery, we talk about enslavement as a theory, but I like to put a face with the names of my ancestors, to humanize them, to let people know that these were actual human beings that had a life prior to arriving here. And, when they arrived, they showed their resilience through what they were able to accomplish with the creation of Africatown.”
Africatown was the community founded by the survivors of the Clotilda and their descendants. The Africatown Heritage House, which will open to the public on July 8, will serve as an interpretive center to tell the story of the Clotilda and those enslaved who survived to begin the Africatown community.
The community also was the subject of TROY alumnus Theo Moore’s documentary, “Afrikan By Way of American.” The founder of Hiztorical Vision Productions, Moore and his crew spent three months with members of the community before even picking up a camera. The film, which featured interviews with residents, descendants, historians and scholars, was funded by a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I sat down with the community and some of the descendants and asked for their blessing,” Moore said. “I was more interested in the people that were on the ship, in their decisions and their stories. When you watch my film, of course you have to mention the Clotilda, but the film transitions to honoring these people – the ones who played a big role in building and sustaining this community. So, I spent a lot of time with the community, Not as much as I wanted to because Covid hit.”
The film debuted in 2021, but Moore still wanted to do more. He now serves as African-American Heritage Coordinator for the Alabama Historical Commission.
Dr. Kathryn Tucker, who moderated the panel discussion, said discussing such topics is of vital importance to understanding the country’s history, even when that history is difficult and painful.
“As important and revelatory as the history of the Clotilda and Africatown is, the community has received little attention until ongoing efforts to find the remains of the Clotilda began garnering national attention,” Tucker said. “The descendant community has become a significant voice in shaping the narrative around these discoveries and the future of their community, and it’s exciting to me that TROY can be a part of this conversation the whole nation is having.”
Founded in 2000, the McPherson-Mitchell Lecture in Southern History is named in honor of former Troy University History Department faculty members Milton McPherson and Norma Mitchell. Lecturers are historians who conduct research in a variety of subject areas and time periods in Southern history
This event is funded in-part by the Alabama Humanities Alliance and South Arts.