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Clotilda: The Exhibition, at Africatown Heritage House, honors slave ship survivors, descendants and the Alabama community they created

More than 160 years after they arrived in the United States, Clotilda: The Exhibition provides an entry point for talking about the 110 men, women and children brought to Mobile on the last known slave ship, and their descendants.

The focus of the exhibit at the new Africatown Heritage House is about the resilience of those enslaved individuals and the achievements of the community that they created and established in Alabama.

According to the creators and directors of the exhibit, it was important to begin where the story starts: in West Africa, with the men, women and children living their everyday lives. These individuals came from a variety of ethnic groups, religions and cultures, and even spoke different languages.

“The story is not just of local importance but national importance for a lot of reasons. There’s a lot of firsts, lasts and onlys with this story. It’s the last slave ship to come to the U.S., it’s the first U.S. slave ship to be excavated and it’s the only town to be founded, operated and run by native-born Africans at this moment in history,” said Meg McCrummen Fowler, director of the History Museum of Mobile.

“I think that the real significance is that this story and community reminds us that the past is always present,” she said. “You can’t learn about this history, visit the Heritage House in Africatown and not come away with the sense that history is not something that is distant and remote, but is alive and very much with us.”

Indeed, conservation work continues on artifacts carefully removed from the sunken Clotilda that are expected to be added to the exhibition. They include a lead hawse pipe from the ship’s bow, a small section of hull planking held together by iron drift pins, and a timber with an iron pulley and fragments of a braided metal and rope cable in the pulley, from the ship’s steering mechanism. The Alabama Historical Commission is overseeing the Clotilda conservation effort.

Conservators Claudia Chemello and Paul Mardikian of Terra Mare Conservation are leading the Clotilda conservation work. They are treating each artifact differently based on its component materials and recovered condition.

“As the guardian of the Clotilda, the Alabama Historical Commission takes the stewardship of these priceless artifacts very seriously,” State Historic Preservation Officer and commission Executive Director Lisa D. Jones said last week in a news release that provided an update on the conservation efforts.

“The preservation of these artifacts is important to Africatown and the nation. Careful consideration for the protection, preservation and interpretation of these significant pieces has been methodical, strategic, and deliberate,” Jones said.

Among the most powerful aspects of the exhibit are the words of the descendants being shared and spoken throughout. The exhibit collapses the gaps in time to make history very near through objects passed down to family members, pieces of the shipwreck and signed land deeds.

“In every step of the curatorial process, from topics to floor plans and layouts, descendants were engaged throughout that process, which really helped shape certain parts of the exhibit,” Fowler said. “Descendants told us again and again, ‘We want tangible connections with what is present-day benign.’”

Having a place that people can visit helps change the cultural landscape around the topic, allowing a new generation of Mobilians, as well as people from across the country, to learn the story. By the time visitors near the end of the exhibit, the hope is they come to a realization that matches a quote displayed on the wall: “It’s not about the ship, it’s about the people.”

The Africatown Heritage House was built jointly by the Mobile County Commission and the city of Mobile, with the History Museum of Mobile curating Clotilda: The Exhibition. The Alabama Power Foundation provided a grant to help create Clotilda: The Exhibition.

The History Museum of Mobile anticipates the exhibit being on display for the next three to five years, with opportunities to extend it as needed. Group tours for adults will be available starting  this fall and school tours will start during spring 2024 semester. More programming and events will be announced soon to engage the community in the life of the museum. Schedule your visit at