Although the importation of slaves into the United States had been banned through an act enacted on March 2, 1807 (effective January 1, 1808), the horrific practice continued illegally until the last known vessel, Clotilda, was burned and scuttled soon after arrival at Mobile Bay in an attempt to destroy the evidence.
The main sponsors of Clotilda's last voyage, to what is now known as Benin, had arranged to buy slaves in Whydah, Dahomey, on May 15, 1859. Like many southern states, Alabama was very much dependent on agriculture, and the criminalisation of slave trade posed a threat to their economic interests. Finding themselves at a crossroads, ships such as the Clotilda offered them the hope of continuing to bring in slaves illegally from Africa.
In May, archaeologists discovered the remains of the vessel that represents a dark part in the history of the black man.
The Clotilda was discovered by archaeology firm company Search Inc, which was called in to help by the Alabama Historical Commission to investigate the hulk, says the National Geographic Society, which reported the find.
What makes this vessel an important part of the black man's history apart from the fact that it was a tool used to terrorise a continent?
The last shipment of the vessel is closely tied to a little Alabama town known as Africatown. The town was founded by the descendants of the 110 men and women who were brought in on the last known shipment of slaves from Africa.
The story of Africatown begins with a bet made by a wealthy landowner and shipbuilder from Mobile, Timothy Meaher, with northern businessmen that he could smuggle a cargo of African slaves into Mobile Bay under the nose of federal officials.
Meaher had learnt of an ongoing crisis and war between West African tribes. The reports that he had received stated that the King of Dahomey (now Benin) was willing to sell prisoners taken in warfare as slaves. The King of Dahomey's forces had been raiding communities in the interior, bringing captives to the large slave market which was at the port of Whydah.
The man leading the voyage, Captain William Foster, made an extraordinary recording of the events that took place. In his journal, he recorded in detail his encounter with African royalty as well as the different tactics they implemented to avoid a run-in with the authorities.
"It's the best-documented story of a slave voyage in the western hemisphere," historian Sylviane Anna Diouf - who relied on testimony from the slave traders and their captives, some of whom lived in the 20th Century - told National Geographic at the time the shipwreck was found.
When the shipment arrived in the USA, the slaves were to be distributed to the financial backers of Meaher. Meaher was to retain 30 of the slaves for his own property in Alabama. Among the 30 was Cudjo (aka Cudjoe) Lewis, known as Kossoula or Kazoola, a founding father of Africatown.
After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, the Clotilda captives tried to raise money to return to their homeland. The men worked in lumber mills and the women raised and sold produce, but they could not acquire sufficient funds.
After realizing that they would not be able to return to Africa, the group deputized Lewis to ask Timothy Meaher for a grant of land. When he refused, the members of the community continued to raise money and began to purchase land around Magazine Point. On September 30, 1872, Lewis bought about two acres of land in the Plateau area for $100.00.
The former slaves of the surrounding area formed a community which was modelled around West Africa culture and traditions. It was not only a representation of their evasion of the chains of slavery, but their separation from the whites was also a chance to preserve the rich culture of their roots.
They appointed a chief and a medicine man, and spoke their native tongue, creating an autonomous enclave where their culture could survive. It was a magic blend of the traditions of West Africa traditions and America folkways. A tight-knit community that took care of its own, an incarnation of Ubuntu in the land of the oppressor.
The community had two major sections: the first and larger one, of about 50 acres, and the second section of about 7 acres, located about two miles west. The latter area was called Lewis Quarters after founder Charlie Oluale Lewis and his wife Maggie.
Over the decades, the town has gone through some transformation. It managed to go separate itself as a distinct community with a peak population of 12,000 as it thrived from a vibrant papermill industry.
However, as the industry went into decline in the 20th century, many of its inhabitants begin to leave the city. At its all-time low, the town was only recognised as a neighbourhood of Mobile.
As many of the descendants blended into the larger American culture, they left little but some abandoned homes and a large graveyard to remember a community that fought to keep their heritage alive.
Africatown has a small history museum inside the grounds of the Mobile County Training School, where the Africatown bell was formerly located. The bell had been recovered from the Clotilda and was historically rung at the approach of bad weather, or to celebrate the victory of the local team.
About 2,000 people lived there in 2018, including 100 known descendants of survivors of Clotilda. Among the descendants of Charles Lewis and his wife Maggie, who was also born in Africa, is a great-great-great grandson Ahmir Khalib Thompson, the 21st-century drummer and music producer known as Questlove. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he is descended from their son Joseph and his wife.
Header Image Credit: AFRICATOWN