Site History and Significance
A Self-Governing Refuge
Located just north of Mobile, Alabama, Africatown was founded by former slaves from West Africa following President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Amid the rows of shotgun houses and simple forms of mid-twentieth-century American architecture, Africatown embodies the resilience of survivors of enslavement. A self-governing refuge based on traditions and ways of life from their homelands, Africatown embraced a new community where residents could simultaneously retain their unique African identities and learn to navigate the often hostile cultural, political, and economic challenges of post-Civil War America.
The 2019 discovery of the Clotilda, the schooner that transported 110 Africans to the American Deep South, recounts a painful story. The Clotilda had been chartered in 1860 to purchase enslaved Africans despite a more than 50-year-old ban on the “importation of human life for the purposes of slavery.” When the ship’s captain came under suspicion for illegal importation, a crime punishable by death, he ordered the Africans ferried up the Mobile River, hidden in the marsh, and the ship burned and sunk to destroy any evidence of wrongdoing.
Leveraging the Narrative of America’s Last Slave Trip
Today, about 100 descendants of Clotilda’s survivors remain in Africatown. As new archaeological discoveries emerge coupled with ever-encroaching industrial land development and environmental impacts of the coastal South, the future of Africatown remains uncertain. Attention from the highly publicized search and recovery of the ship, which had remained in the same location since being sunk in 1860, has brought an onslaught of economic opportunities embraced by the descendant community. Now, the task that lies ahead requires balancing visitor curiosity with lasting community benefit and ensuring that this important part of American history continues to be told by the descendants themselves.
2022 World Monuments Watch
World Monuments Fund (WMF) includes Africatown on the 2022 World Monuments Watch to highlight the need and opportunity for authentic, community-led preservation and storytelling. WMF plans to support descendant communities in telling their stories, seeking environmental justice, and navigating the bureaucratic challenges that come with leveraging the narrative of America’s last slave ship. Implementing practical, descendant-guided planning will help communities shape and articulate goals that foster a burgeoning industry of cultural tourism and equitable outcomes for the people and places that make Africatown so significant to communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Through the World Monuments Watch, WMF collaborates with local partners to design and implement targeted conservation programs—including advocacy, planning, education, and physical interventions in the historic built environment—to improve human well-being through cultural heritage preservation.
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