In 1860, 52 years after importing slaves to the United States was declared illegal, Alabama farmer Timothy Maher bet that he could defy the law and smuggle human goods into the state from West Africa.
Maher built a schooner called the Clotilda, hired a captain to sail to Dahomey (now Benin), bought 110 Africans, and brought them to Telephone Bay under cover of night. Hiding in the swamps for two weeks, the Africans that Mahir did not keep for himself were sold to other plantation owners. To escape criminal charges, Clotilda was cremated, destroying evidence.
When slavery ended in 1865, Africans, unable to return home, established Africatown near Mobile. They swore to secrecy under threat of harm, spoke of the horrific journey and enslavement only among themselves, and passed on the story orally. With no evidence of the ship ever having been held, no one was ever held accountable, and many outside the community dismissed the stories handed down as legend.
But the story has not only continued, it has drawn strength over the decades. In 1928, author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston interviewed and photographed one of the last living captives, Cudjo Lewis, who made the voyage aboard the Clotilda. Hurston tells his story, PARCON It was published posthumously in 2018. In 2019, a team of divers, who have some knowledge of the sunken ship’s whereabouts, found the partially burned but largely intact wreck, confirming the veracity of the story.
new netflix movie, descending, This examines the dark part of American history that has finally come to light. descending It explores the relationship between the people of Africatown and the recently discovered wreck of the last slave ship to reach American shores.
Injustice and abuse did not end with the abolition of the slave trade and the denial of the commission of a crime. Clotilda’s descendants, many of whom still reside in Africa Town, live in the shadow of huge factories owned by the descendants of slave traders, causing pollution and causing serious health problems. A class action lawsuit, citing elevated cancer diagnoses, was filed against an industry in 2017 and settled in 2020, with plaintiffs receiving anywhere from $200 to $8,000 each.
The discovery of Clotilda began the healing process of a city bearing the ugly scars of injustice for more than a century. Descendants of Africatown organizes to preserve history, spread awareness, tackle the industry’s negative impact, and erect monuments to honor its powerful founders. The Museum of African Heritage, which contains information and artefacts from the original dwellings and Clotilda, is still in the early stages of construction.
Just last week, descendants of the Maher family broke their long silence on the history, telling NBC News that what their ancestors did was “evil and unforgivable.”
Our family has been silent for a long time on this matter. However, we hope that we – the current generation of the Maher family – can start a new chapter.
Members of Clotilda’s Descendants Association said they met Maher’s family.
Produced in part by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground descending Created by documentarian Margaret Brown (Legends Ranking). She won the Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The two-hour film debuted on Netflix in October.
Vida Tunstall, a member of the Africatown community, is a descendant of Clotilda’s captives, and is featured in the film. I spoke to her in a phone interview on October 26. The text below has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your relationship with the captives of Clotilda, and how did you know about its history?
[Clotilda captives] Polly and Rose Allen are my third grandparents. It was just information we were always told about, but we didn’t know how important it was. It’s like, if someone tells you that your grandmother was a nurse, don’t even think about it until someone tells you that your grandmother did something historically great. We didn’t think it was a big deal until someone told us it was a big problem.
What was your immediate reaction when you learned that the Clotilda ship had been discovered and identified as the same ship you heard about as a kid?
I wasn’t surprised to find it, nor was I excited. It was like getting excited about someone’s prison cell being imprisoned in it. It was the site of a horrific journey. It was like, “Now you can all believe it.”
In the film, after the ship is found, a large group of artists from Clotilda and her African captives are revealed, huddled and crouched in a dormitory. The camera shows you look so thoughtful, and then you said you couldn’t stop staring at her. why?
When I looked at her, I imagined the grandmother I knew she was having. When I looked at this show, I could see real people. Polly and Rose… I can see them as two of these people, as if they were actually my grandparents. I go back to imagining grandparents that I know are going through this, and it just broke my heart. You tore me.
What was the reaction of the people in the city you spoke to about the film?
People are in awe of the quality of the film’s production, and were amazed that the date was true in their backyard and didn’t know about it. They were shocked by all the information they had learned. Someone told me they were driving across the Africatown bridge, and she saw things you hadn’t noticed before. She saw it differently.
We went door to door and left posts telling people about the movie. Some of those who live here had no idea of the historical significance, so we took the time to tell them about it. People are excited for many different reasons.
Now that Africa Town is in the national spotlight, what do you hope will happen next?
I want Africa Town to become a self-sufficient community again, and I want to see the industry outside Africa, or at least the negative impact is greatly reduced. I want Africa Town to be a residential community again.
You said you work in nursing. I imagine you have a great concern about the pollution aspect of this story, and the factories and health risks of living near them.
yes. I’m a bit “green” in a way, and I care about environmental justice. The fact that these people are so little understood that this industry is allowed to influence society as it is – that’s the part that makes me more than anything else. When I watched the movie, I noticed the celebration of the citizens of Africa under the bridge, the surrounding factories, and the train in the background. In almost every shot in Africa, you can see the industry, no matter where it is.
In the movie, you said you didn’t know what justice would look like for the descendants of the African city. What do you think now that time has passed?
This may be a question I will think about until my last day on this earth. I think about it and go down a rabbit hole. It’s very complicated. If you think of grandchildren… where are the grandchildren? Who are they, how do you make up for us all, or an act Will you compensate us all? What would make the most sense, and what would have a lasting impact? I go to the rabbit hole and when I get there, I still don’t know the answer. I just know that I want society to benefit, and if society benefits, then I benefit. The people who committed the crime are gone, but there may be a way to do the right thing. But I don’t know what this is.
What do you want people to take away from this movie?
I want people to take away the story. I want them to see the people in the story. I want them to see the environmental injustice and environmental racism that is taking place. I want them to see if there are ways they can get involved.
In the movie, when there was a lot of talk about the ship itself, and talking about the descendants of those on board, there seems to be a lot of focus on the ship. I said, “I don’t want us to be a part of the story; I want us to. is being story.” What do you mean?
I want us to control which direction Africatown is going. I don’t want us to just be on a trip and have someone else direct the vision. I want the descendants of Africatown to direct it. I want us to be that, not just a part of it. I feel like there’s a difference between some people who see this as a story, and some people who see this as what we’re dealing with. The people who focus on the ship are like, “Wow, there’s this historical thing, the great shipwreck that’s been found!” And they don’t pay attention to people. We say we don’t care about anything about the ship because the problems still exist. The ship has nothing to do with any of that. The movie is called descending, Not the Clotilda Shipwreck.
Have you ever thought about leaving an African city or going to a different country? What keeps you there?
I stay because my family is here and she is at home. I thought about leaving when I was younger, but I grew up and had opportunities. At this point, though, it’s all about the family. And I’m glad to be here now, because I’m involved in doing this work.
What will you pass on to your grandchildren about this experience?
I want to tell them about the importance of families telling stories and conveying information, because if it wasn’t for it being ingrained in our family, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We will not know this date. We wouldn’t be able to do this work for Africa Town, if we didn’t know who we are.
Rosalynn Storey is a freelance writer and journalist and member of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. I wrote this column in the Dallas Morning News.
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