Ship Carrying Over 100 Enslaved Africans Arrives in Alabama Despite Ban On Slave Importation
On July 8, 1860, more than 50 years after Congress banned the importation of enslaved Africans into the U.S., the slave ship Clotilde arrived in Mobile, Alabama, carrying more than 100 enslaved people from West Africa. Captain William Foster commanded the boat, and was later said to be working for Timothy Meaher, a white Mobile shipyard owner who built the Clotilde.
Captain Foster evaded capture by federal authorities by transferring the enslaved Africans to a riverboat and burning and then sinking the Clotilde. The smuggled Africans were subsequently distributed as enslaved property amongst the group of white men who had financed the voyage. Mr. Meaher kept more than 30 of the Africans on Magazine Point, his property north of Mobile, Alabama. One of those Africans was a man who came to be known as Cudjo Lewis.
In 1861, Mr. Meaher and his partners were prosecuted for illegally importing the Africans into the country, but a federal court dismissed the case as the Civil War began. No investigation or remedy ever involved the actual African men and women central to the case; while the federal case was pending, the Africans Mr. Meaher had claimed remained on his property left to fend for themselves, and were offered no means of returning to Ghana.
In 1865, after the Civil War ended and slavery was widely abolished, the Clotilde survivors once held by Mr. Meaher were free—but still trapped in a foreign land far from their home. They settled along the outskirts of Mr. Meaher’s property, at a site that came to be known as “Africatown,” and developed a community modeled after the traditions and government they had been forced to leave behind. Unlike the vast majority of newly freed Black people in the country, who had either been born in the U.S. or seized from Africa many decades before, the people of Africatown had a direct, recent connection to their African roots and vivid memories of their culture, language, and customs. Well into the 1950s, descendants of the Clotilde passengers living in Africatown maintained a distinct language and unique community of survival.
Cudjo Lewis lived to be the last surviving Clotilde passenger in Africatown. In 1927, Black anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Alabama to interview Mr. Lewis about his life, and produced a manuscript documenting his story. The book was not published in her lifetime, but in 2018, the story was released as Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo. Today, many descendants of the Africans trafficked on the Clotilde continue to live in northern Mobile, Alabama, and in December 2012, the National Park Service added the Africatown Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places.