Descendant Unearths Stories of the Clotilda, America’s Last Slave Ship
Descendant, a selection in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition directed by Margaret Brown, offers a powerful deep dive into the history of the Clotilda, the very last slave ship that ever ferried commodified Africans to the United States.
For over a century, the location of the ship’s wreckage — burned by the Mobile, Alabama slave owner Timothy Meaher who secretly chartered the Clotilda’s unlawful voyage in 1860 — was a mystery.
But in 2019, the Clotilda’s wreckage was finally discovered. Descendant details the history of the Clotilda and its survivors, including Clotilda passenger Cudjo Lewis, whose personal account of the voyage was unearthed by the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 manuscript Barracoon in 2018. The film also amplifies the call for justice and reparations to the residents of Africatown, the community built by the Clotilda survivors after they were freed in 1865.
“When we go beneath the water, we immerse ourselves in this profound sort of tranquility,” Kamau Sadiki, an activist and member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, who was a strong force in the search for and discovery of the Clotilda’s wreckage, said in a Q&A following the documentary’s world premiere at Sundance.
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“Connecting with these slave shipwrecks adds another very incredible dimension to the whole notion of what it means to be human, at least for me. And so it’s an incredible experience. We came here across the water, some of our ancestors are still in that water. So that connectivity is deep within the soul, and we have to reconnect to that heritage because if we don’t, it’s like we’re walking around stumbling about. It’s like we’ve got a profound hole in our soul if we don’t tell this story.”
Sadiki also congratulated director Margaret Brown “for doing an incredible job in telling that story.”
But the work to be done for Africatown has only just begun. Now, the Clotilda descendants, through the Clotilda Descendants’ Association, are fighting to restore the health of their community. In Descendant, Africatown residents describe abnormally high rates of cancer in their area, which they believe is linked to toxic chemicals leached into the environment by several large factories that surround Africatown. Some of those factories sit on land owned by the Meaher family, who are direct descendants of Timothy Meaher.
“What we want for Africatown, one of the things we want, is for the industry to go away. You can see the harm that the industry is continuously doing to our community. We want the Meahers out of the community,” said Clotilda descendant and Africatown resident Veda Tunstall. “This crime is continuously being perpetuated into this community by the industry still being there, by the Meahers still owning property, leasing it to industry as you saw in the film. We want a way to be able to formally educate the rest of the world.”
The Meaher family declined to participate in the documentary and have yet to communicate directly with the Clotilda descendants. However, the family spoke out for the first time in June 2021 when they sold a former credit union building at a discounted rate to the city of Mobile to be used as a food bank for low-income residents, and as an office building for the newly-established Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, according to AL.com.
“When Mayor Stimpson contacted the Meaher family regarding the sale and/or donation of this property to the city of Mobile for this project, we could not think of a better way to give back to the community,” the Meaher family wrote in a press release. “We all look forward to watching this endeavor become a reality with a lasting impact on the community for years to come.”
Main Image: Emmett Lewis appears in Descendant by Margaret Brown, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Participant.