In 2019 we began reporting on the discovery of the– a sunken slave ship found in the bottom of an Alabama river. The Clotilda was the last ship known to have brought captured Africans to America in 1860. What happened to the 110 men, women and children on board is well documented, and their stories have been passed down through generations by their descendents, some of whom still live just a few miles from where the ship was found…in a community called Africatown.
For 160 years this muddy stretch of the Mobile River covered up a crime. In July 1860 the Clotilda was towed here, after a 45-day voyage from West Africa with 110 enslaved people onboard.
Joycelyn Davis: I just imagined myself being on that ship just listening to the waves and the water, and just not knowing where you were going.
Joycelyn Davis, Lorna Gail Woods and Thomas Griffin are direct descendants of this African man, Oluale. Once enslaved, his owner changed his name to Charlie Lewis. This image is from around 1900. Pollee Allen, whose African name was Kupollee…. seen in this hundred year old sketch, was the ancestor of Jeremy Ellis and Darron Patterson.
Darron Patterson: No clothes. Eating where they defecated. Only allowed outta the cargo hold for one day a week for two months. How many people do you, do we know now that could’ve survived something like that, without losing their mind?
There are no photographs of Pat Frazier’s great-great grandmother, Lottie Dennison, but Caprinxia Wallace and her mother Cassandra have a surprising number of pictures of their ancestor, Kossula, who’s enslaver called him Cudjo Lewis.
Caprinxia Wallace: Growing up my mom made sure she told me all the stories that her dad told her about Cudjo.
Anderson Cooper: Cassandra, that was important to you to, to pass that knowledge along?
Cassandra Wallace: Very important, yes. My dad sat us down and he would make us repeat Kossulu, Clotilda, Cudjo Lewis.
The story of the Clotilda began when Timothy Meaher, a wealthy businessman, hired Captain William Foster to illegally smuggle a ship load of captive Africans from the Kingdom of Dahomey, modern-day Benin, to Mobile.
When they arrived, Meaher divided them up between himself, his brother Byrnes and several others. Captain Foster claimed he then burned and sank the Clotilda…but exactly where remained a mystery until 2018.
That’s when a local reporter, Ben Raines, found the Clotilda in about 20 feet of water next to land still owned by the Meaher family.
Ben Raines (holding journal): This was the key to finding the ship.
Raines had been searching for seven months, following clues in Captain Foster’s journal, which is in Mobile’s public library.
Anderson Cooper: So we’re almost over it now?
James Delgado: Yeah, we’re coming right up on it.
Wewith maritime archeologist James Delgado in 2020.
Man: Sonar is on. Good to drop.
The water is so muddy, the only way to see the ship is with a sonar device.
Anderson Cooper: Wow, you can see it totally clearly. I mean, that’s the ship?
James Delgado: Yes. Yeah, that’s Clotilda.
This is the bow here, just a few feet from the surface, and both sides of the hull. Clotilda is 86 feet long. But the back of it, the stern, is buried deep in mud.
Anderson Cooper: You can see nothing.
We dove on the wreck, but there is zero visibility underwater. This wooden plank was all our camera could pick up.
Two years later, James Delgado and his team, including diver Jay Haigler, returned to the wreck to properly explore the site. They carefully removed 98 pieces of the Clotilda for examination…
James Delgado: This is a very good find…this is off of the stern.
…including this part of the steering system. Most remarkable of all, they found, for the first time ever, according to Delgado, the intact cargo hold of a slave ship…. and it was smaller than they’d previously thought.
James Delgado: But the only way to get all those people in, was to literally put these posts in and lay these platforms as they call them out. A foot and a half apart and literally cram people in.
Delgado helped us create this animation that shows the posts they found still upright in the cargo hold and the wooden platforms — where the 110 captives had been forced to lie crowded together shoulder to shoulder… stacked on top of each other…in near total darkness… for the 45-day voyage.
James Delgado: The British had developed a rule on how to do this. So it was a foot and a half by five feet for a man. A foot and four inches for a woman. And a foot for a child.
Anderson Cooper: A child would get one foot of body space?
James Delgado: And when you use that very bureaucratic, cruel, evil math you could cram the 110 people in there in horrific conditions.
Jay Haigler had dived on slave ships before, but never inside a cargo hold.
Jay Haigler: And once I got down there, there was a calmness that was around. It really kind of washed over me. And then I really felt the presence of the 110 ancestors. I was a different person that came out of that cargo hold than it was when I went in.
Anderson Cooper: You really feel that?
Jay Haigler: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It was a spiritual experience.
Some of the ship’s pieces Delgado’s team retrieved are now on display in a new museum, called Africatown Heritage House, which opened in July just a few miles away from the wreck.
…Africatown was founded around 1868, three years after emancipation, by 30 of the Africans from the Clotilda. It is the only surviving community in America founded by Africans, and some of their descendants still call it home.
Anderson Cooper: Who lives here now?
Joycelyn Davis: Ah, family members, cousins…
Joycelyn Davis took us to the street her great great great grandfather, Charlie Lewis lived on, it’s still called Lewis Quarters.
Anderson Cooper: So pretty much everyone on this street can trace their lineage back to Charlie Lewis–
Joycelyn Davis: Yes. Everyone here is related.
Anderson Cooper: Wow.
Joycelyn Davis: Yeah.
In an interview published in 1914, Cudjo Lewis said when he and the other Clotilda survivors were freed after five years of enslavement, he asked Timothy Meaher to help them return to Africa, but Meaher refused. Meaher also tried to prevent them from voting, and some found work in a sawmill Meaher owned.
Joycelyn Davis: I mean, they worked for, like, a dollar a day. Until they saved up their money to buy land.
This rare film from 1928 shows Cudjo Lewis in his 80’s…when he was one of the Clotilda’s last living survivors. He helped found this church in Africatown, the same church many of the Clotilda descendants still attend today.
Anderson Cooper: After emancipation, it seemed so unlikely that a group of freed slaves could pool their resources and build a community. I mean, that’s an extraordinary thing.
Mary Elliott: There’s this thing we say about making a way out of no way.
Mary Elliott is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Mary Elliott: When these folks were forced over here from the continent of Africa, they didn’t come with empty heads. They came with empty hands. So they found a way to make a way. And they were resilient.
Africatown was once a vibrant community. There were Black-owned businesses, the first Black school in Mobile, and by the 1960s, 12,000 people lived here.
But those Black-owned businesses are gone. An interstate highway was built through the middle of Africatown in the early 1990s, and there are only about 800 residents remaining, living in small clusters of homes surrounded by factories and chemical plants.
Anderson Cooper: No matter where you go in Africatown, you can hear factories and industry and the highway.
Mary Elliott: There is this constant buzz. It’s a buzz you hear all the time, day and night. And it’s a constant reminder of the breakup of this community.
Since the Clotilda’s discovery, some $10 million in city, state, federal and philanthropic funds have gone into the revitalization of Africatown…but the descendants of Timothy Meaher, the slave-owner who bankrolled the Clotilda refused to meet.
The Meaher family still owns about 14% of the land in historic Africatown and their property markers are hard to miss. There’s even streets nearby named after Timothy Meaher. Court filings from 2012 indicate the Meaher’s real estate and timber business is worth an estimated $36 million.
When we first visited in 2020, the Meahers weren’t talking…. to us.. or the Clotilda descendants.
Darron Patterson: I don’t think it’s something that people want to remember.
Caprinxia Wallace: Because they have to acknowledge that they benefit from it today.
Pat Frazier: That they benefited, that’s it. That they benefited. That’s how part of their wealth was derived.
Darron Patterson: Big part–
Pat Frazier: And that, on the backs of those people.
Anderson Cooper: What would you want to say to them? I mean, if– if they were willing to sit down and have, you know, have a coffee with you?
Jeremy Ellis: We would first need to acknowledge what was done in the past. And then there’s an accountability piece, that your family, for this many years, five years, owned my ancestors. And then the third piece would be, how do we partner together with, in Africatown?
This past July descendants of Timothy Meaher agreed to a historic meeting with the Clotilda descendants.
For years, descendants of the enslaved Africans brought to Alabama on the Clotilda have been trying to meet with the descendants of Timothy Meaher, the man responsible for bringing their ancestors here in 1860. Last year, a new generation took control of the Meaher family business, and began to explore reconciliation. A few months ago, we witnessed a sit down between the modern-day Meahers… and the relatives of the men and women their ancestor enslaved.
The meeting took place in a conference room in Mobile’s history museum this past July.
Pat Frazier: I previously thought that this day would never happen, ladies. Because people kept saying, “The Meahers have kept quiet,” you know? “We’ve tried to approach them. They’ve only spoken through their lawyers.”
Pat Frazier was representing the Clotilda Descendants Association, along with Joycelyn Davis, and its president, Jeremy Ellis.
Jeremy Ellis: My hope is that this can be an example of what reconciliation looks like, for the nation, as well as start the healing process for a number of descendants.
Joycelyn Davis: Everybody has this perception that, you know, maybe we’re angry.
Anderson Cooper: Are you angry at the Meahers?
Joycelyn Davis: I’m not angry at the Meahers. I’m just angry at the fact that it took so long to speak out.
Meg Meaher: We were silent for far too long and we were distant for far too long. And we’re very happy to be able to finally break the silence and to narrow the distance.
That’s Meg Meaher great, great, grandaughter of Timothy Meaher. She is an accountant, who now oversees the family’s business holdings and property, along with her sister Helen, an attorney.
Helen Meaher: And I know that there’s no words that I can say that adequately address the horrors that your ancestors endured as a direct result of the actions by my ancestor, Timothy Meaher. You know, we can offer this generation’s heartfelt apology. But it’s easy to say things. We’re gonna start doing things.
Anderson Cooper: Can you talk a little bit about why you were silent, or why the family was?
Helen Meaher: Yeah, so, our family, it’s like some other families. We have lots of layers, and complexities, and you know some dysfunctions and we have been in like, a lawsuit, like, among family members. And that finally resolved just a year ago. So, like, now, it’s, you know, really, it’s our generation that’s been able to, like, step up.
Jeremy Ellis: What does reconciliation look like for you?
Meg Meaher: Well, I told this to Anderson yesterday. I hope he comes back in 10 years and Africatown is a thriving place, and that we’ve been able to play a part in helping that– that transformation.
Helen Meaher: And I think about building relationships and– and seeing what ways, you know, we can give back.
Helen grew up just a few miles from Africatown but had never been there until last year when she started volunteering at a food bank. As a first step to make amends, in 2021, Helen and Meg sold this plot of land in Africatown to the city of Mobile for $50,000, a fraction of its appraised value. It will be home to community development organizations and a new food bank.
Meg and Helen still own about 14% of the land in historic Africatown.
Jeremy Ellis: We have some asks, some specific asks that we would like to see accomplished.
Anderson Cooper: You’re talking about plots of land?
Jeremy Ellis: We believe that within that historic district of Africatown, there are parcels of land that we should have ownership in.
Anderson Cooper: Should the idea that–
Jeremy Ellis: –a land trust.
Anderson Cooper: A land trust?
Jeremy Ellis: Uh-huh.
Anderson Cooper: And that, that land would then be leased out for a business?
Jeremy Ellis: Wouldn’t it be great if a company like Walmart could partner with descendants and lease out land from descendants?
Pat Frazier: If there is a trust, and there’s land, and people can have services that they don’t currently have. Today, you couldn’t get, you know, a loaf of bread without having to drive miles away. The streetlights are so poor. The roads are so bad. The dilapidated housing is so terrible. Or maybe there can be educational trust funds that somebody would go to college and not be saddled with student loans.
Jeremy Ellis: I have a daughter. And I believe that she should have the same level of education that the Meaher family experienced. We believe that the same level of education should be provided to all descendants. A lot of focus, as it should be, is on Africatown, but as the president of the organization, I have to be intentional about those other survivors that maybe didn’t grow up in Africatown. But they still were impacted by this story.
Anderson Cooper: So you’re talking about 110 people who were on the Clotilda.
Pat Frazier: Right.
Anderson Cooper: Their descendants probably number in the thousands, right? How is it possible for these two people to make it right for thousands of people?
Jeremy Ellis: We never asked that. There are a number of conspirators who played a role. You have to take it bite by bite. But if you have an honest conversation at least we know what the parameters are, to work within.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think they bear responsibility for the actions of Timothy Meaher and subsequent generations?
Pat Frazier: So I feel like they can’t be responsible for what their forefathers did. However, I want them to recognize how that behavior benefited them and worked to the disadvantage of us. Just like they’ve had multiple generations of wealth, the original slaves and their descendants haven’t.
Anderson Cooper: The inability to purchase land–
Pat Frazier: Couldn’t build on anything–
Anderson Cooper: –and– and intergenerational wealth passed down for real estate–
Pat Frazier: And had none of that, none of that.
Anderson Cooper: Are there parcels of land in Africatown that you all are financially dependent on, that you’re making money from?
Helen Meaher: I think I’d have to review that better. Since, like, I have just taken on this new role. And so there’s still so much that I’m learning. We’re still keeping an open mind, and, you know, working on, you know, figuring out next steps. And I’m not shutting a door on anything.
Anderson Cooper: You said you don’t hold Helen and Meg responsible, but you are asking them to pay reparations.
Jeremy Ellis: It’s reconciliation. I’ve never used the word reparations.
Joycelyn Davis: I’m askin’ for land–
Anderson Cooper: What’s the diff– sorry.
Joycelyn Davis: I’m askin’ for land that’s undeveloped, that’s been undeveloped for decades.
Anderson Cooper: What is the difference between reconciliation and reparations?
Jeremy Ellis: I think reparations encompasses a lot more. I think it’s more than just land. I think that–
Joycelyn Davis: Uh-huh.
Jeremy Ellis: When we talk about reparations, we need to talk about the mental health aspect of things and the mental tragi– that folks have endured.
Anderson Cooper: What do you say to somebody who’s watching this who’s white and thinks, “This is scary, that I can be held financially liable for something a great-great-great-grandparent did, that I didn’t even know about or I just learned about.”
Jeremy Ellis: Our actions can show them that it’s something that can be done and this is what reconciliation and healing looks like for those that have been impacted through generations, right?
Not all of the conversation was about land or possible scholarships for descendants’ children. Joycelyn Davis wanted the Meahers to remove their property markers in Africatown.
Joycelyn Davis: How would you feel if you were going into a neighborhood and you saw the enslaver’s name on almost every corner that you pass?” You know, it’s like a constant–
Jeremy Ellis: Reminder.
Joycelyn Davis: –reminder–
Pat Frazier: Reminder.
Jeremy Ellis: Reminder, uh-huh.
Helen Meaher: I mean, I would– I– I would hate it, you know–
Joycelyn Davis: And it’s like a, “Hmm”–you know? It’s like, “Oh, wow.”
Anderson Cooper: Is it a, “Hmm,” or a, “Are you (LAUGHTER) effing kidding me?”
Joycelyn Davis: Both.
Meg Meaher: Yeah.
Joycelyn Davis: It’s– it’s a little of both.
Meg Meaher: We can work to remove those monuments. I mean, I know that’s a small step, but that it’s not something you have to see everyday. And so that’s a first step that we can take. I can’t change the street signs, cause that’s the city.
The descendants also wanted to know about any artifacts that might have belonged to their ancestors or from the Clotilda that were kept or hidden away by past generations of Meahers.
Anderson Cooper: Are there artifacts that you have?
Meg Meaher: We do not have any artifacts that I’m aware of. We’ve looked very hard.
Pat Frazier: I can’t believe that there aren’t family relics. I just want to think that people preserve things of some significance.
Anderson Cooper: And that would be important to you?
Jeremy Ellis: Absolutely. A lot of people are trying to learn about their ancestors.
Meg Meaher: Well, I can tell you we’re continuing to look–
Pat Frazier: To look?
Meg Meaher: –as we go through stuff–
Helen Meaher: Yeah, we are.
One of the few artifacts they’ve found so far is this cane…which belonged to Timothy Meaher’s brother Byrnes Meaher, the man who enslaved Pat Frazier’s great-great grandmother Lottie Dennison.
Anderson Cooper: Pat, is this something you want to see?
Pat Frazier: I want to see it.
Anderson Cooper: So, this is the cane that belonged to the man–
Pat Frazier: This is the cane.
Anderson Cooper: 15:07:35;09 –who purchased your–
Pat Frazier: My ances–
Anderson Cooper: –your great-grandmother?
Pat Frazier: Exactly. Thank you.
Anderson Cooper: What’s that like, to touch something like that?
Pat Frazier: Well, it makes me sad. Because it just really makes you remember the hardship.
Anderson Cooper: I can hear the sadness in your voice–
Joycelyn Davis: Uh-huh.
Jeremy Ellis: Uh-huh.
Pat Frazier: Yeah. I’m very sad about it.
The meeting lasted about two hours, and though no financial commitments were made, the Meahers have begun removing their property markers and are donating more land around the food bank. In addition to the descendants, the Meahers say they’re consulting with financial planners and other community development organizations in Africatown to weigh their next steps.
Anderson Cooper: What are your biggest concerns? Like what are the calculations you’re making…
Meg Meaher: We don’t wanna generate conflict, because we do know that there are different organizations. So that’s my biggest concern is: How do we not cause conflict, working with everyone.
Jeremy Ellis: No. I totally understand. They’ve come to the table, trying to do the right thing. And they want to be intentional with the decisions that are made. So I totally understand that perspective.
Helen Meaher: I mean, I think some of it is just, like, red tape. I mean, if we have to, like, do a transfer of property, you just wanna I guess ensure that, you know, everything’s being done correctly. This is going to take some time, cause it’s the right thing to do.
Jeremy Ellis: And I agree that it’s– it’s not easy work. Even the ask is– isn’t easy, right? That’s not an easy thing to do.
Anderson Cooper: In your dream, Africatown would become a thriving community.
Joycelyn Davis: Yes, again–
Jeremy Ellis: Absolutely.
Anderson Cooper: Again.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think these conversations need to be had across the nation?
Joycelyn Davis: Yes.
Jeremy Ellis: Absolutely.
Pat Frazier: Make no mistake about it.
Jeremy Ellis: And– and– absolutely. Absolutely.
Pat Frazier: And that’s something that we failed to do in this country. And there is some misconception on the part, I think, of a lot of people, that those are just some greedy ancestors that are trying to get some handouts. They want some more handouts.
Jeremy Ellis: Let– let me be very clear also–
Pat Frazier: No.
Jeremy Ellis: We did not come to the table saying, “We want all– everything.” We were very in– intentional about what those asks were. And so, we’re just coming to the table reasonably, respectfully, and authentic.
Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta and Katie Brennan. Broadcast associates: Eliza Costas Grace, Conley and Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Craig Crawford.