Lorna Gail Woods had heard stories of the Clotilda since before she could speak. In the evenings, her grandmother would hold her on the porch and tell her the tale of how her great-great-grandfather came to Alabama on the last known slave ship to come to the United States.
They were brought by force, her grandmother would tell her, by an American businessman who just wanted to win a bet. Her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis was the oldest of 110 slaves bought in West Africa, chained in the hull of the Clotilda and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta in Alabama in 1860. But after the slaves were unloaded, the crew burned the ship, and its wreckage was never found, so many people doubted the story.
“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” Ms. Woods, 69, said over the phone in a warm, Southern cadence.
On Monday, the story that Ms. Woods’s family — and many like hers in Africatown, the historic neighborhood of about 2,000 on the shores of the delta just north of Mobile — had passed down for more than 150 years became much more real.
On that day, Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he told of discovering the charred wooden remains of a boat believed to be the Clotilda. A team of archaeologists who visited the site said that based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents — including charred timber, iron drifts — the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.
“This is the proof that we needed,” Ms. Woods said. “I am elated because so many people said that it didn’t really happen that way, that we made the story up.”
Ms. Woods and other descendants said they were ecstatic about the news but still coming to terms with it. While the Clotilda had always been at the center of family lore, the common bond among neighbors in Africatown, they previously had to accept the story on faith.
About 10 of the 100 or so descendants of the Clotilda slaves who still live in Africatown gathered on Wednesday to discuss what should be done with the wreckage if it proves to be the Clotilda.
Should it be removed and restored? Should it stay where it is and the land be protected? Should the wreckage be placed in a museum?
“We want to tell the rest of our families about what happened over 150 years ago,” Ms. Woods said. “We want to get some answers.”
Lavon Manzie, a Mobile councilman who represents Africatown, said the possible discovery of the Clotilda is welcome news in a part of Mobile that is often overlooked. Last year, an artist painted a mural of the slave ship on a concrete wall in the neighborhood, a sign of the Clotilda’s continued resonance in the community.
Mr. Manzie said the Clotilda slaves represented what was best about his state and America. They came against their will and did not know English or understand American culture. Still, he said, they managed to transform Africatown into a thriving community of agriculture, schools, churches and community centers.
“It’s a story of resilience and self-preservation,” he said. “If you consider the circumstances of what these individuals had to learn and grow from and then reach the highest of success they can achieve, it is an amazing story.”
Ms. Woods remembers the story of how her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis came on the Clotilda. As a child Ms. Woods learned that Mr. Lewis was the oldest slave on the ship, and that he was known as chief of the Tarkbar Tribe.
“Charlie only spoke the African language, so he passed the story down to his son Joe Lewis,” Ms. Woods said. She said that he learned to read and write at the Old Union Baptist Church in Africatown and recorded the story.
The Old Union Baptist Church has served as a hub for the community. Several slaves who arrived on the Clotilda were founding members of the church.
Liston Portis has lived in Africatown for 55 years and sees the story of the Clotilda as the history of the town.
“I was very excited and happy that they found the ship because I had heard about the ship all my life,” Mr. Portis said. “For someone to locate it, it makes our story real and true.”
Mr. Portis, a retired juvenile detention supervisor, is not related to any of the slaves who arrived on the Clotilda. But he said he knows the story because churches and schools in the community reinforce it.
“It is very important to know from whence you come,” Mr. Portis said. “Especially in the African-American community because we were not reading and writing, so our stories that were passed on molded us.”
“To actually see our history and know where we come from specifically,” Mr. Portis added, “it gives credence to our story.”
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