Researchers at the Alabama Historical Commission recently announced that they’ve located the remains of the last known ship known to bring enslaved Africans to what we now call the United States.
As National Geographic notes, slave importing was officially banned in 1808, though an illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade continued for many years. In 1860, some 50 years after the importation of enslaved people was deemed illegal, a ship named the Clotilda transported 110 people from present-day Benin, on the west coast of Africa, to Mobile, Alabama. After its delivery of black people to slave owners, just one year before the Civil War, the ship was burned to destroy evidence of its illegal activity.
“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, in a statement, according to CNN. “The voyage represented one of the darkest eras of modern history and is a profound discovery of the tangible evidence of slavery.”
As the story has been told by historian Natalie S. Robertson and reported by the Associated Press, the treacherous slave trade was literally a game for some. Timothy Meaher, a plantation owner in Alabama, made a bet with someone that he and his people could evade detection and get a ship carrying stolen Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. And so a schooner, Clotilda, set sail.
“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” Robertson said.
If the name “Clotilda” sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember when The Root’s founder, Henry Louis Gates Jr., met with The Roots’ Questlove to trace his lineage back to Africa. What Gates discovered is that Quest’s direct ancestors were listed as being on board that very ship.
The Africans who came on the Clotilda spent the next five years enslaved and were freed only after the South lost the Civil War, the AP notes. Because they had no way of going back to Africa, approximately 30 of them used the money they earned working in fields or on ships or as domestic servants to buy land from Meaher’s family. The all-black community they created near Mobile continues to be known as Africatown.
This week, National Geographic spoke with other descendants of founders of Africatown about what the rediscovery of the Clotilda means to them and their community.
Authorities are working on preserving the shipwreck in the place where it’s been found.
Correction: Sept. 16, 2019, 4:35 p.m. ET: This story has been edited to remove unattributed text and add fuller sourcing.