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Remembering the ‘Clotilda,’ Survivors: New Alabama Museum Commemorates Final Voyage

Africatown Heritage House exhibit displays pieces of ‘Clotilda’ slave ship, stories of its survivors

spinner image left a mural of known and unknown enslaved people who were aboard the clotilda right a bust of cudjo lewis
A mural, left, at Africatown Heritage House displays the names of known and unknown enslaved people who were aboard the Clotilda. Cudjo Lewis, also known as Kossola Oluale, right, was one of the last-known survivors of the Clotilda, which entered the U.S. in 1860. A bust of him is at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama.
Lynsey Weatherspoon

Africatown, Alabama — Altevese Rosario’s voice quivers when she speaks of her great-great-great-grandfather Kossola Oluale.

Here in the hot Alabama sun, she remembers Oluale’s greatest sacrifice and reflects on what it meant to him to be one of the last known survivors of the Clotilda. In 1860, the slave ship took the final voyage trafficking Africans into the United States, 52 years after the federal government had outlawed bringing enslaved people into this country.

“The goal of Kossola sharing his story was twofold,” Rosario, 48, told the crowd gathered to celebrate the opening of Africatown Heritage House, a nearly 5,000-square-foot, one-story building in the center of Africatown. “First, he valued the richness and beauty of his origins. And second, he needed his story — their story,” Rosario paused. “To be forever remembered.”

spinner image altevese rosario the great great great granddaughter of kossola oluale
“Our ancestors aren’t physically here. They’re spiritually here, and they get to see what they always hoped for,” says Altevese Rosario, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Kossola Oluale.
Lynsey Weatherspoon

“It got to me a little bit,” Rosario says of her emotional moment. “Our ancestors aren’t physically here. They’re spiritually here, and they get to see what they always hoped for.”

Africatown Heritage House

2465 Winbush Street
Mobile, AL 36610

Open: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Tickets: $15 for adults; $9 for adults 65-plus, active/retired military; $8 for children 6–18. Timed-entry tickets are required in advance.

Accessibility: The building is accessible. Headphones can be requested for use with provided audio handsets. Audio transcriptions are also available.

Oluale, who later went by the name Cudjo Lewis, shared the details of his life in West Africa and Alabama with author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. She interviewed Oluale in his home in Africatown, the community he and other Clotilda survivors created about five miles north of downtown Mobile after emancipation. Hurston recounted Oluale’s life in her book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”

Now Oluale, his fellow Clotilda survivors and their descendants have a new platform for documenting their story. The recently opened museum was built on ancestral ground, its land donated by the descendants of Clotilda survivors to share their historic biographies. Its siding is painted the same blue as Africatown’s first school to honor the occupants of the Clotilda.

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The Clotilda exhibit inside Heritage House recounts the capture of West Africans near present-day Benin. It documents their two-month voyage on the Clotilda, and their resilience during and after enslavement in the United States.

The Africatown Heritage House is a 40-year dream realized for the descendants of the Clotilda survivors and the residents of Africatown. “I’m overjoyed in how it has turned out,” Rosario says. She hopes other community members are satisfied with the exhibit too.

“While the nuances are unique to us, the overall story is the same for nearly every Black American that is here,” she says. “At some point, their ancestor was taken from somewhere. They were enslaved and then, prayerfully, had to live a life beyond slavery, even in the midst of slavery.”

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The exhibit at Africatown Heritage House provides a look into the lives of the enslaved in Africa before their capture.
Lynsey Weatherspoon

A journey through history, starting in West Africa

As soon as visitors step into the foyer of the Africatown Heritage House, the wall in front, painted black with protruding, colorful shards, catches the eye. Some of these fragments contain portraits of Clotilda survivors. Others are brightly colored patterns in hues of green, blue and red that resemble the designs of West African wax fabric.

Visitors begin the exhibition in a room that tells the story of life in West Africa. As they continue through the following rooms, they are introduced to the stories of the people trafficked aboard the Clotilda, including Oluale, Ar-Zuma and Kupollee. 

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The exhibit slowly introduces information about the enslavers responsible for Clotilda’s final voyage. Timothy Meaher had made a bet that he could smuggle Africans into Mobile, even though the United States had outlawed importing enslaved Africans more than a half century prior. Once the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay, human cargo in tow, its captain, William Foster, burned and sank the ship to hide the evidence.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors are ushered into a room with a handful of fish tanks, each containing pieces of wood or metal excavated from the Clotilda. The artifacts are submerged in water, the pH levels carefully monitored to prevent them from disintegrating. Since the Clotilda has been underwater for more than 160 years, removing them from water now could destroy what are among the most important pieces of archaeological evidence researchers have about the transatlantic slave trade.

Even as visitors examine pieces of the ship, a large quote on the wall in white lettering reminds them: “It’s not about the ship, it’s about the people.”

Can one exhibit capture an entire community?

Jacqueline Tunstall-Williams, 51, stops by to say hello to an Africatown resident selling “Legends of Africatown” shirts. Tunstall-Williams is carrying a bag full of her homemade blackberry candles for sale. 

“It’s deeper than just the ship,” she says. “It’s deeper than just the Clotilda. It’s about who am I to you? I need you and you need me. And that’s what this community has always been.”

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She says some current Africatown residents are concerned that the Africatown Heritage House doesn’t tell the full story of those who still live here, and of Africatown’s resilience, care and self-sufficiency.

“Some feel that the community is getting left out because ‘the descendants’ is the main focus, but there are very few descendants that live here and in the surrounding areas,” she says. “We are a unique thing because we’re from the place, and we can tell it from a different perspective.”

Tunstall-Williams is taking it into her own hands to tell that side of the story. She launched a business called What You Say Tours that guides visitors through the Africatown neighborhood, teaching them about its history and collective culture. Tunstall-Williams’ business was one of five that received a tour license through a program created for Africatown residents.

Jessica Fairley, 39, the manager of Africatown Heritage House, hopes to partner with the newly minted tour guides, including Tunstall-Williams. Once visitors are done exploring the Clotilda exhibit, Fairley wants to steer them to the tour guides, so they can continue learning about Africatown and residents can make money from the tourism in their neighborhood.

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A skyline view of Mobile, Alabama. Africatown Heritage House is located north of the city.
Lynsey Weatherspoon

“I want the community to profit. I want them to benefit the most from the Heritage House,” Fairley says. “The people here in Africatown are protective of their land. They’re skeptics. I want them to be skeptics. You should be a skeptic — anybody in any Black neighborhood should be a skeptic when people are coming in who may have ulterior motives. But you should not allow that skepticism to keep you from progressing.”

Fairley was born and raised in Prichard, Alabama, the Black community adjacent to Africatown. She carries the weight of telling the Africatown story authentically, because even though it’s not part of her family’s lineage, it’s a well-documented version of a story shared by all African Americans who descended from enslaved people.

“It is about the people. And when I say about the people, I don’t mean the 110 [Clotilda survivors] alone. We’re talking about the people, as in the Black culture here in the United States,” she says. “So, yes, the 110 came over on the Clotilda, but what ship did my people come over on? If they can trace their history, I can trace mine, you can trace yours and people all across America can trace their history. This is monumental.”

There are hundreds of thousands of stories to trace of the people who, as Rosario says, lived a life beyond enslavement in the U.S. Many of these stories begin hundreds of years before the Clotilda made its final voyage. 

The Clotilda descendants and Africatown Heritage House staff hope their stories will be the catalyst to uncover more.

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