Remains of last known U.S. slave ship discovered

The wreckage of the Clotilda was recently discovered. Clotilda survivors' descendants now live in an area known as Africatown.

The wreckage of the Clotilda was recently discovered. Clotilda survivors' descendants now live in an area known as Africatown.

In a historic discovery, the last known ship to bring slaves from Africa to the U.S. has been found in the Mobile River, concluding an extensive search and a mystery more than a century old.

Troy University’s Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Economic Development, Walter Givhan, also serves as Chairman of the Alabama Historical Commission, which played a key role in the recent discovery of the slave ship Clotilda.

“The discovery of the slave ship Clotilda brings history alive in a way that only an important find can,” Givhan said. “It is a treasure that will unlock and connect stories that need to be told again, and it will give them fresh meaning and power.”

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 with a shipment of 110 children, teenagers and young adults from Benin and Nigeria, more than 50 years after the U.S. banned the importation of slaves.

The ship captain, William Foster, had the Clotilda burned and sunk after the slaves were removed, in an effort to avoid detection and criminal charges.

Now, a collaboration between multiple organizations, including SEARCH Inc., the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Alabama Historical Commission has led to the discovery of the ship’s remains.

After the Civil War, Clotilda survivors eventually formed their own community, now known as Africatown, near Mobile.

Clotilda descendants still occupy the area, and Givhan said they were ecstatic to learn of the ship’s discovery.

“We’ve had a long working relationship with the descendants of Africatown, and they needed to be the first people to hear this news,” Givhan said. “They were jubilant, because they have been waiting for this day a long time. It was jubilation for this important touchstone of their heritage. This is an important shipwreck, but this is much more than a 19th century shipwreck — this is the story of a people.”

This isn’t the first time the ship has been thought to be discovered, but this time, extensive research and independent study led to the conclusion that the genuine article had finally been found.

“There has been a rigorous investigation with months and months of analysis and review of the findings,” Givhan said. “We can say with confidence this is the Clotilda.”

Dr. Sylviane Diouf, an African Diaspora historian and author of a book about the Clotilda, told a crowd at TROY’s Claudia Crosby Theater in January that discovering the Clotilda wreckage would be a needed step toward properly recognizing the survivors and descendants.

The next step after discovery, Givhan said, was security. Now, the commission will focus on preservation.

“It has been a thrilling journey of discovery for all of us involved, and this journey continues as the Alabama Historical Commission performs its critical mission of protecting, preserving and interpreting this incredibly valuable historical and cultural resource,” Givhan said. “This belongs to the people of Alabama and to the people of Africatown. It is the commission’s legal responsibility to act as stewards of this shipwreck.”

He said he told the Africatown inhabitants that their community is about to become “the center of the world.”

“Nothing like this exists anywhere else,” he said. “This is a remarkable story. To have the shipwreck here and to have descendants of the people who came on this ship, you’re not going to find this anywhere else. This is incredible.”