This Bham-born reporter found the last US slave ship—here’s his story

Ben Raines with a piece of the last US Slave Ship
Ben Raines holds the first piece of Clotilda to see the light of day in 160 years. Raines and a team from the University of Southern Mississippi discovered the wreck in April of 2018, though it was not confirmed and announced until May of 2019. Photo via Joe Turner

Did you catch this clip on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to the US, on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, November 30, 2020? To learn more about this discovery and its impact on the people of Africatown and across the globe, we reached out to journalist Ben Raines and Joycelyn Davis, a direct descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the Clotilda’s captives and founders of Africatown. Keep reading to find out more.

First, a little background on Africatown and the Clotilda, the last US slave ship

The short summary of the story goes like this: in 1860, 52 years after the international slave trade had been abolished, a wealthy Alabama slaveholder named Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring people from Africa into this country illegally. He hired a man named William Foster to captain the ship.

By all accounts, their trip to the Kingdom of Dohomey (present-day Benin), in West Africa, was successful. Meaher’s men captured 110 Africans who were the last to traverse the harrowing Middle Passage. Under cover of the night, Foster brought the Clotilda through Mobile Bay up into the Mobile River. There, the Africans disembarked before being transported to the places where they would be enslaved.

Meaher + Foster: the captors of the last US slave ship

Meanwhile, Meaher and Foster burned the ship, lying about its whereabouts ’till the end of their lives.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 meant the end of slavery five years after arrival. When they realized they wouldn’t be able to earn enough money to go back to Africa, some of the former Clotilda captives began purchasing land where they established Africatown.

The founding of Africatown: a story in resilience

Africatown, just outside of Mobile, was once a thriving town established entirely by Africans. Over time, a number of changes from outside, including a highway through the town and industrial pollution surrounding it, have done a lot to damage the original prosperity of the town.

While descendants of those who came over on the Clotilda shared family stories about what had happened for generations, people rarely believed them. Until now.

Two notes about language from Bham Now: we know that many people now prefer to use the more humanizing term “enslaved person” vs. “slave”. And, because much of this piece was an interview, we kept the original language of the interviewee. Also, “America” in this context refers to the country that became the United States, even though the slave trade happened across the Americas and in the Carribbean.

Bham Now: Tell us a bit about you.

“I was born in Birmingham and left Alabama at age one, returning only to visit relatives until age 29. At that time, after going to film school at NYU, I moved here from Oregon and worked at the Press Register in Mobile as an environmental reporter.

I’m also a licensed guide and take people out on boat trips to see the alligators and flowers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

This led to a lot of different things, including making documentaries (like America’s Amazon, The Underwater Forest, Alabama Eden) and, most recently, finding the Clotilda.” 

Ben Raines

Bham Now: What was the discovery?

“So far, what we found is is the hull of the Clotilda itself. Archaeologists haven’t yet dug into the hull because it’s still buried in mud.

The ship is a totem for the entire slavery story. The Clotilda is this ghost that haunted people on both sides of the Atlantic for 160 years.”

Raines

Bham Now: What does the discovery of the Clotilda mean?

“It makes the history real and proves that what Africatown’s residents say happened actually happened.

For a long time, people in Mobile treated the story like it was an urban legend. In 1860, Timothy Meaher, the man who made the bet that he could bring Africans into this country illegally, burned the ship.

Then he lied about its location for the next 30 years. He wanted to throw people off the scent so they wouldn’t find the wreck. He was afraid of being prosecuted, since the international slave trade had been outlawed at that time.

And, it was the last slave ship to come to America. In the slave trade, there were more than 20,000 ships over 400 years. Only 13 have been found, including the Clotilda. This is the only one that came to America, so we’ve found a missing link.”

Raines

The larger significance of the last US slave ship

“Everyone whose ancestors arrived in the US as slaves knows almost nothing about their history. People can get DNA tests which tell the region their people may have come from.

But we know more about those 110 people and their lives than anyone else in America who arrived as a slave.  

By 1808, importing Africans was against the law. Most of the stories we have are from people who were born into slavery and had never been to Africa. For the Clotilda, we know the location of each person’s capture.

We have details, down to the individual towns and tribes. We know who sold them, when, where, who bought them, what ship brought them to America. We also know what happened to them when they came here and after slavery.”

Raines

From West Africa to the founding of Africatown

“The Clotilda story becomes a proxy for everyone whose ancestors were slaves—it tells their story, too. They can look at these people and understand more what happened to their people, too.

We have first-person accounts in multiple books from several historians including Zora Neale Hurston in Barraccoon and Emma Langdon Roche’s earlier two-volume book Historic Sketches of the South which interviewed nine of the former slaves before they died. We have nine accounts of the Middle Passage and what their individual experiences were being captured.

This is an incredible treasure trove. With the ship, it’s an incredible story, telling the story of American slavery and the experience of enslaved people.”

Raines

The impact of the discovery of the last US slave ship on the people of Africatown

Celebration of the discovery of the Clotilda in Africa Town
Hundreds of descendants of the enslaved people who arrived aboard celebrated the discovery of the Clotilda on May 30, 2019, in Africatown. Photo via Ben Raines

To learn more about the impact of the discovery on the residents of Africatown, I spoke with Joycelyn Davis, a descendent of Charlie Lewis, one of Africatown’s founders.

Bham Now: What has been the impact on Africatown of the discovery of the Clotilda?

“Hopefully, the attention that the Africatown Clotilda discovery is getting will help revitalize the area. The rich history does not match the neighborhood. 

So if people are thinking about tourism, including a Heritage House and Welcome Center, I’m looking forward to some type of economic growth.

We are hoping that the Clotilda can do for Mobile what the Lynching Memorial has done in Montgomery.”

Joycelyn Davis

Bham Now: What does the discovery mean on a personal level?

“As for me, it’s not about the ship, it’s about the people. It has always been about the people—my ancestors and others—those individuals who came over on the ship, but not the ship in itself.

The Clotilda was solely built to bring precious cargo over, but I’m not so excited about the ship. I want us to honor those who came over and their legacy—honor them for their bravery, their resilience and being able to survive what they went through. 

There are so many layers to the story. The 60 Minutes clip was great, but there’s so much we couldn’t put everything in. There’s so much more to Africatown than the Clotilda ship.

If the ship is going to bring in any type of attraction and economic growth that will help revitalize area, fine. But let’s focus on the people and what they endured.”

Davis

Bham Now: What’s the next step in terms of preservation of the ship + telling the story of Africatown?

“There’s a debate. The issue is whether to dig it up and put it on display in a museum in Africatown or not. The state has allocated $1m, but it will be much more expensive than that.

If the state gets the ball rolling archaeologically, Congress should appropriate money to dig it up because of its international historical significance as one of only 13 slave ships discovered out of 20,000.

It would immediately become one of the most important stops on the Civil Rights Trail, which should come through Africatown.

The economic impact of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice has been one billion dollars.

People need to come here to hear the story and see the ship.

Pieces of the ship can then go to other museums like the Smithsonian. Benin also wants a piece to help complete the story on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Raines

Ben Raines’s book on the Clotilda will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2021. He has another one called “Saving America’s Amazon,” published by NewSouth Books, available from December 15.

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Sharron Swain
Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference
Articles: 536