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  • Writer's pictureMichele Thomas

The Last Slave Ship

Americans will shortly be celebrating Independence Day, often called the Fourth of July after the date it falls on, but African Americans can mark another date as historically important to them: July 9th.

There are two dates given for the arrival of the last slave ship to land on American shores: an unspecified day in autumn of 1859, or July 9 of 1860. Take your pick; there is no way to verify, at this late point, which of those is historically accurate.

We do know for sure the identity of the ship: It was the Clotilda (often misidentified as Clotilde), a two-masted schooner 86 feet long. And the trade it was engaging in was highly illegal. Why? Because an act of Congress passed March 2, 1807 had banned the further importation of slaves into the U.S. effective January 1, 1808. But in reality this importing of human cargo continued, albeit in contravention of the law, until the Clotilda was burned and scuttled shortly after arriving in Mobile Bay.

Why would anyone want to burn and scuttle the ship? They were attempting to destroy the evidence.

The slaves had come from Whydah, Dahomey, purchased like just so much goods on May 15, 1859. The oldest slave on the ship was Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, who was said to be a chief, and who, after the Civil War, was among the founders of Africatown. This community, founded by 32 former slaves, was located on the north side of Mobile Alabama, which city eventually absorbed it, after WW II. Other Africans joined the 32 founders, and the community continued for decades speaking the Yoruba language and practicing many of their West African traditions.

Lewis became a spokesman for the community and, at the time of his death in 1935, was the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda. (The last survivor was a woman named Redoshi, who was given the name as Sally Smith and who lived until 1937.)

But roughly 100 descendants of the Clotilda slaves remain living in Africatown even now. (Still others are scattered around the country.) And just recently—in 2012—the Africatown historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But if Africatown lives on, the ship that started it all, is gone.

And good riddance!

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Among AcuteByDesign’s many multicultural books, we are proud to offer The Dance of the Antelope, a Ghanaian Cinderella story written by Patricia Nater and beautifully illustrated by Tyrelle Smith.

You can also pre-order The Legend of MeeCheli: The First African American Princess, which tells the story of a band of escaped slaves near Jamestown, led by a brave and beautiful young woman, who—similarly to the slaves you just read about who founded Africatown—started their own village, hidden in the Virginia hills.

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