Last May, 400 years after shackled Africans first set foot in the English colony of Virginia, a team of underwater archaeologists announced that the charred, sunken remains of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach U.S. shores, had been discovered near Mobile, Alabama.
In 1860—52 years after the United States had banned the import of slaves—a wealthy landowner hired the schooner and its captain to smuggle more than a hundred African captives into Alabama, a crime punishable by hanging. Once the nefarious mission was accomplished, the ship was set ablaze to destroy the evidence. The captives were the last of an estimated 307,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860, making the Clotilda an infamous bookend to what has long been called “America’s original sin.”
In 1865 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the Civil War that had devastated the nation was the Almighty’s judgment on that sin. After the war ended and slavery was abolished, the displaced Africans from the Clotilda put down roots as free Americans, but they didn’t relinquish their African identities. Settling among the woods and marshes upriver from Mobile, they built simple homes, planted gardens, tended livestock, hunted, fished, and farmed. They founded a church and built their own school. And they created a tight-knit, self-reliant community that came to be known as Africatown.