The Sundance award-winning documentary releasing to international audiences this October captures Africatown’s complicated history and hope for the future.

a neighborhood in Africatown
Portraits by Chad Riley

In the heat and humidity of a lush Lower Alabama summer, filmmaker Margaret Brown and her crew canvas the streets of Africatown searching for the right shot. The myriad of greens from grass, banana trees, azalea bushes, and other coastal flora fill the lens. Shotgun houses, an old car and a chain-link fence appear run-down but are buoyed by nature’s electric pallet. Then the frame widens and pans up above the tree line to reveal a tumult of billowing smoke and the massive gray infrastructure of the heavy industry adjacent to the community of Africatown.

Brown, a Mobile native, screened her forthcoming documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was an award-winner and caught the attention of some noteworthy fans. Descendant” has been acquired by Netflix for worldwide distribution with Participant, Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, and Executive Producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of musical group The Roots. This high-profile support ensures the film will reach national and international audiences. Questlove is a multiple Grammy Award-winning hip-hop musician, bestselling author and award-winning filmmaker, who happens to also be a descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the Clotilda captives and a founder of Africatown. 

Dr. Kern Jackson, the director of the African American Studies program at the University of South Alabama, also brought his expertise to the documentary. Jackson serves as co-writer and co-producer and appears in several scenes throughout the film. He collaborated with Brown in the past, and it was through their conversations over the years that “Descendant” was born.

The documentary focuses on the descendants of the Clotilda slave ship, whose ancestors were smuggled from Africa to Mobile in 1859, despite the international slave trade being outlawed in 1808. More than a century later, the infamous story has finally received local, national and international coverage since the discovery of the actual ship by local investigative reporter Ben Raines in 2019. The release of “Descendant” this October will thrust the Mobile area into the spotlight again.

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Black&white image of Dr. Kern Jackson, Jocelyn Davis and filmmaker Margaret Brown
Dr. Kern Jackson of the University of South Alabama and Margaret Brown co-wrote the documentary, which prominently features Africatown-native Jocelyn Davis.

The Bet
The story goes that on the eve of the Civil War, Alabama shipbuilder, planter and lumber magnate Timothy Meaher bet a large sum that he could smuggle a ship full of enslaved Africans into Mobile. The penalty of such an action, if caught, was death by hanging. Meaher presumably made the bet late in the evening on one of his riverboats during an argument with a Northern passenger about the politics of the day. Captain William Foster was then hired to sail his schooner Clotilda, one of the fastest cargo ships in port, to the coastal city of Ouida in the kingdom of Dahomey, now present-day Benin. Once there, Foster purchased 110 captive Africans who were then forced into the cargo hold of the ship. They endured a terrifying and inhumane three-month journey back to Mobile across the Middle Passage. On July 8, 1860, 108 captives disembarked into the dense cane break and mosquito-infested swamps of the Mobile River onto a plantation belonging to Meaher’s friend. They had to be hidden under the cover of night as US Marshals searched
for the slaves as evidence against Meaher. Those slaves were the last recorded African captives imported into the United States. 

Foster then burned the Clotilda. It sank into the mud of the Mobile River near Twelve Mile Island and disappeared from view, hiding evidence of the crime. Meaher was arrested, brought to trial and cleared of all charges because the ship could not be found, despite reports to the press that he bragged incessantly about the bet he had won. 

Five years after first setting foot on Alabama soil, the Africans of the Clotilda were emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Despite the fact that many of them were from different African kingdoms and spoke different languages, they were able to unite and persevere. They worked to find a way back to their beloved homeland, but eventually gave up that hope due to lack of resources and availability of return passage. Instead, they set out to build their own community where they would practice their customs and religions, govern themselves and raise their children in ways that were important to their identity. A leader of the community was chosen to ask Meaher for a plot of land on which to settle and farm. When he balked at the request, the group collectively saved money and purchased the land from Meaher, establishing a community they called Africatown. Descendants still hold tax records proving these land purchases.

This story might have disappeared, along with the ship, had not generations of descendants of the Clotilda’s captives kept it alive through oral history. For decades, the citizens of Africatown either did not feel safe to tell the story to a broader audience, or they could not find an audience willing to listen. Today, however, that has changed, and the trials and perseverance of the Clotilda passengers and their descendants have culminated in the discovery of the ship. This perhaps stands as a judgment of Meaher’s hubris. 

Vernetta Henson, Veda Tunstall and Darron Patterson
Vernetta Henson, with her daughter Veda Tunstall and Darron Patterson, who all lent their voices and stories to “Descendant.”

Brown’s film poignantly weaves the stories of several of the descendants still living in and around Mobile, uncovering the legacy of their ancestors. “The story of the Clotilda inspired me the most initially — all the complicated layers of it,” Brown said when asked about the film’s impetus. “But as I got to know the descendants as people and as friends I was just inspired by their activism, creativity, resilience and humor in the face of extreme multigenerational odds.” 

With the discovery of the Clotilda in 2019, Brown captures the moment when this small south Alabama community was suddenly catapulted into the national spotlight. “When the ship was found it gave the community a way to validate the stories they’d been telling among themselves for generations,” Brown adds.  

In addition to oral history, author Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work, “Barracoon,” forms a written narrative of the Africatown settlers that Brown uses to weave the past and present together. In the book, Hurston documents the stories and ruminations of Cudjo Lewis (Oluale Kossula), one of the enslaved Africans on the Clotilda and a founder of Africatown. Originally penned in 1927, the manuscript lay dormant in the vaults of Howard University until its publication in 2018. It could not find a publisher in its day because it was written in Lewis’s vernacular and prominently discussed the enslavement of Africans by other Africans, both unpopular at the time. In Brown’s documentary, the descendants read aloud Lewis’s own words from “Barracoon” as he described the tortuous and terrifying conditions of the Clotilda’s hold. We hear how he longed for his mother, and that even as an old man he still reached for her in his dreams. We feel Lewis’s love for his fertile and verdant homeland, we despair at the group’s attempt to return to Africa, and share in their hope of creating a home in this new land they were forced to inhabit. 

In the documentary, Captain William Foster’s descendant, Michael Foster, attended the Spirit of Our Ancestors festival held in Africatown. On a chilly morning during his visit, Ben Raines took Foster and several Clotilda descendants, along with Kamau Sadiki of Slave Wrecks Project, up the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta to the remote site of the sunken Clotilda. In an uncomfortable moment, Foster says he felt good that it was recorded by his ancestor’s slaves that Captain William Foster was a good master. Taken aback, Kamau Sadiki then replies, “A good master or bad master is equal in my book.” The uncomfortable tension and passionate frustration of Sadiki are palpable. Missteps aside, the conversation — and the understanding Foster presumably gains — would have never been possible at all if he had not reached out and made the goodwill effort to meet those whom his ancestors wronged.

“The beauty,” Brown says of the film, “is in the complexity of this story. This project taught me how to collaborate deeply with the subjects of the film. I had to listen, be a vessel, and question my own bias.” 

Filmmaker Margaret Brown walks through the Old Plateau Cemetery with Emmett Lewis to find the grave of his ancestor, Cudjo Lewis.
Filmmaker Margaret Brown walks through the Old Plateau Cemetery with Emmett Lewis to find the grave of his ancestor, Cudjo Lewis.

Modern Day
Hope is a continuous thread throughout Brown’s documentary. Since the Clotilda’s discovery, aspirations for what could be loom large. Local residents and descendants aim to revitalize their community with an influx of tourism. As a model, the community looks to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. A world-class museum like that would put Africatown on the map as a must-see landmark in Alabama. 

Several community groups composed of descendants and residents of Africatown have been active in the conversation, hoping to have a say in what happens to their community. But these efforts have not come without continued trouble. “We have different groups in Africatown paddling in different directions, so we’re standing still,” says Cleon Jones, Africatown activist and former Major League Baseball outfielder. (He famously made the game-winning catch for the Mets in the 1969 World Series.) Despite the sudden interest in tourism, some descendants worry their community will not reap the benefits of tourism dollars. 

Dozens of articles locally and nationwide also highlight concerns of the economic and environmental racism the community faces, as well as the generational wealth disparity that continues to weigh heavily on residents.  For generations, the community has had a disproportionate amount of cancer and other health problems implicated by the close proximity of heavy industry. In the film, Joycelyn Davis, who grew up in Africatown and who is also a cancer survivor, remembers playing in the schoolyard with friends as the ash from the papermill snowed down around her. “We didn’t know,” she said. “I thought every school, every neighborhood had factories right next door. I remember when someone asked what that terrible smell was, someone else quickly said, ‘money.’” 

The community was often neglected where basic utilities were concerned. “We didn’t have running water in Africatown until 1966,” explains Lorna Wood, a lifelong resident and descendant of Charlie Lewis. “We had an outhouse. For water, we used a pump and carried water into our house by the bucket.” In Ben Raines’ 2022 book, “The Last Slave Ship,” he recounts how the great-grandson of Timothy Meaher worked to prevent the City of Mobile from laying water lines to the neighborhood just north of town. As the major landlord in Africatown, he worried his tenants wouldn’t pay their rent and water bills, too. “Those were hard times,” Wood continues, “but it brings me joy to tell the story of our ancestors the way it was supposed to be told. Now people are listening. God wants this story to be told, and I have hope.” 

“Those were hard times, but it brings me joy to tell the story of our ancestors the way it was supposed to be told. Now people are listening. God wants this story to be told, and I have hope.” 

– Lorna Woods, Descendant and Africatown resident
Lorna Woods and Jocelyn Davis, both descendants of Charlie Lewis, share their stories of the past and present.
Lorna Woods and Jocelyn Davis, both descendants of Charlie Lewis, share their stories of the past and present.

Moving Forward
Despite questions about the best way to move forward, the potential for revitalization is boundless. Already underway, and in varying degrees of completion, are several projects. County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, Mayor Sandy Stimpson, State Representative Adline Clarke, Visit Mobile’s David Clarke, and Lee Sentell, Alabama Tourism director, have sought to pool their resources to support the efforts underway in Africatown. 

The Africatown Visitor’s Center, which is across the street from the historic graveyard where many Clotilda survivors are buried is awaiting the final go-ahead. A multipurpose building, the site of a former credit union, will include a business center for community groups and entrepreneurs as well as a food pantry. Also underway is the Africatown International Design Idea Competition, which offers multi-disciplinary design teams the opportunity to imagine Africatown as it might be. The contest challenges teams to propose 16 water and land venues stretching between Africatown, Prichard and Chickasaw. The idea of creating a life-size replica of the ship has also garnered considerable interest. 

The most significant project at present is the Heritage House Museum, set to open at the end of the year. The History Museum of Mobile, in partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission, Mobile County Commission, and the City of Mobile, has curated and will operate a landmark exhibition expected to be the primary interpretative space for the story of the Clotilda.

Like “Descendant,” the 2,500 square foot exhibition will put a special focus on the people of this story— their individuality, their perseverance, and the extraordinary community they established, all through a combination of interpretive text panels, documents, and artifacts. The pieces of the Clotilda that have been recovered from the site of the wreck will be on display, on loan from the Alabama Historical Commission. The exhibition has been curated, developed, and designed in conjunction with the local neighborhood and the wider descendant community, and in consultation with experts around the country.

The discovery of the Clotilda, and the international spotlight put upon this hamlet north of downtown Mobile, offers a potential path of hope for the future and a way for the community to tell its extraordinary story. This story has the potential to serve as an avatar for countless African Americans who cannot trace their lineage, but who long to make that connection.

And for those grappling with a way to make sense of the past, the future and their own personal role in this larger discussion, the answer isn’t simple. Cleon Jones said, “I’m not responsible for what my grandfather did and you’re not responsible for what your grandfather did.” But William Faulkner also famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Maybe the path forward is somewhere in between these two truths.

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