Southern Agenda

Memory Keepers

In 1860, more than fifty years after Congress outlawed the importation of enslaved people, the schooner Clotilda sailed from modern-day Benin to Mobile Bay, illegally carrying 110 West Africans. Once the captives disembarked, the captain burned and sank the ship. More than a century and a half later, in 2018, the journalist Ben Raines discovered the first ruins of the Clotilda in the Mobile River, renewing interest in the story and sparking a Netflix show, Descendant, and a slew of books on the subject (including Raines’s The Last Slave Ship). Many of the descendants of those aboard still live in Africatown, a community north of Mobile their ancestors founded after emancipation. On February 4 and 5, the Clotilda Descendants Association will stage the fifth annual Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival to honor the history. “We’ll start off with an African tradition where we ask permission from the oldest person in the room for the festival to go forward, and then we call out our ancestors who have gone on and paved the way,” says Joycelyn Davis, chair of the event and a descendant of Charlie and Maggie Lewis, who were aboard the ship. Descendants will record interviews, and playwright Terrence Spivey’s An Ocean in My Bones, written for the event, will run. Later this year, the descendants plan to open the Africatown Heritage House to tell the Clotilda’s story year-round.