The Last Known Ship of the American Slave Trade
Now, three years later, the city of Mobile stands on the brink of a tourism boom, as interest in the history of the Clotilda and the lives of its resilient captives grows.
Patterson had agreed to drive me around Africatown, an area where many of the ship’s captives eventually settled and where Patterson himself was raised. We started the tour on this piece of land by the Mobile River, under a burgeoning Interstate Bridge where a group of descendants of Clotilda slave ships meet each year for their Under the Bridge festival, to “talk about the way our ancestors came here and to eat and dance,” Patterson said. There was no festival that day and the atmosphere was hushed; just one woman and her grandson were playing at the edge marshy water under the constant hum of traffic.
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Walking back to his car, Patterson, a former sportscaster now in his 60s, recalled that growing up Africatown was a prosperous, self-sufficient place, where “the only time we needed to leave the community was to pay a bill. services” as everything needed was close at hand, apart from a post office.
Located three miles north of downtown Mobile, Africatown was founded by 32 of Clotilda’s original survivors after emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Yearning for the homeland from which they had been brutally torn, the locals created their own close-knit commune to blend their African traditions with American folk traditions, raise cattle and farm the land. One of the first towns established and controlled by African Americans in the United States, Africatown had its own churches, barbershops, stores (one of which belonged to Patterson’s uncle); and Mobile County Training School, a public school that has become the backbone of the community.
However, this once vibrant neighborhood fell on hard times when a freeway was built through the heart of it in 1991, and industrial pollution caused many of the remaining residents to finally pack up and leave. “We couldn’t even dry our laundry because it would be covered in ash [a product of the oil storage tanks and factories on the outskirts of Africatown]”said Patterson. With the high-profile closure of the corrugated box mill, International Paper, in 2000, and a subsequent public health lawsuit brought by residents, the Africatown community that had moved on to 12,000 people in the 1960s dropped to around 2,000 where it stands today.