CONNECTING THE PAST TO THE PRESENT: A STORY WORTH TELLING: Africatown and Spring Hill College

Spring Hill College is working with several community partners to preserve and advance the history of Africatown and the Clotilda Descendants Association in Mobile. This unique community was founded near the crash site of the last slave ship to reach the U.S. The College is actively engaged to share the heroic and heartbreaking stories that emanate from this place.

Ryan Noble can be a bit incredulous when he’s first asked about it.

He’s baffled that he didn’t know about its origins. He’s baffled that more people aren’t talking about its place given our current national conversation. He’s baffled that the kernels of truth around its people are just now starting to filter out beyond the once-insular community.

It’s taken more than 150 years, but the story of the Africatown, Clotilda and the heroism, patience and persistence of generations of survivors is beginning to spill past the borders of downtown Mobile, Ala., and work its way into the national dialogue.

“How in the world does everyone not know this story?” asked Noble. “Alex Haley wrote a famous book called Roots and it was made into a famous TV series, but it featured fictional characters set in a historical context. Well, this is like Roots, but it all has real people.”

The desire to share this story has driven Noble, the head of Spring Hill College’s film department, to craft a comprehensive documentary that chronicles the history, heartbreak and hope of Africatown. He was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help develop The 110: The Last Enslaved Africans Brought to America, the first in a planned trilogy of films that explore the people of Africatown.

The first installment is slated to be released by the end of the year with initial plans to collaborate with Alabama Public Broadcasting on distribution. 

From faculty to staff, students to alumni, it seems as if every bit of SHC has been involved in uncovering and sharing the Africatown story. The community was founded by a group of West Africans who were included in the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the U.S. 

The slave trade had been banned in 1808, but 110 slaves were smuggled into Mobile on the Clotilda, a ship commissioned by Alabama shipping magnate Timothy Mayer. The ship was burned and sunk upon arrival in an ill-fated attempt to conceal the true reason for its voyage.

The survivors of the Clotilda retained their West African customs and language well into the 1950s, though the ship itself was long thought lost.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation would free slaves across the Old Confederacy, much of the land of Africatown would remain under the oversight of the Mayer family for generations. Noble said the original founders of the community were forced to pay rent on their own land for a period of time before the land was sold back to residents at an elevated price.

“The Mayers kept all the property around the community, so what happened in the 20th century was they began leasing that land to industry — steel mills, pulp mills, gravel pits,” Noble said. “Well, all this industrial development was being built right on top of the community.

“They still were landlords, building housing projects and shotgun houses they would rent. There is a pretty good chance today that there still are descendants renting property from the Mayers, and that is a direct line to the formation of this place.”

The intricacies of the story from the perseverance of the community’s residents to the parallels to the broader discussion around race and justice taking place in the country drew Noble to the story.

It also led him to connect with Joél Billingsley, an associate professor at the University of South Alabama and a member of the Clotilda Descendants Association. Billingsley, who is a producing partner on the project, had worked on Mobile in Black and White, a film on race relations in the community. Noble provided some editorial consultation on the film, and the duo also collaborated on a series of digital video production classes at SHC.

During production for The 110, however, a new wrinkle emerged that added a whole new dimension to Noble’s storytelling. Billingsley began to explore her past more deeply in response to inquiries about her connection to the Clotilda

“We collectively decided if Joél was willing, we should just have her in the film, and then she could go on this journey of identity,” Noble said. “Now we have this parallel story – Joél searching for her connection and discovering her roots, while also still telling the broader story around the survivors of the Clotilda.”

With the first film in the trilogy finished, the next step is to take the story to the broader public, ensuring more and more people know of Africatown, the Clotilda and its people. Given the recent discovery of the ship’s wreckage in the past decade, as well as the elevation of racial and social justice into the national discourse, Noble said Africatown and its history can bridge the gap between the tragedies of yesterday and the possibilities for tomorrow.

“One of the problems people have with the teaching of race is people feel like it’s so far in the past it can’t possibly have any impact on contemporary American society or our current situation,” said Noble. “Africatown and its story refute that. There is a direct line between the living and lived experiences of the current occupants of that space that is correlated directly with Clotilda and that voyage.”

ABOUT SPRING HILL COLLEGE:

Founded in 1830, Spring Hill College is the oldest Catholic college in the Southeast and the third oldest Jesuit college in the United States. Spring Hill combines the Jesuit tradition of excellence in education and a commitment to caring for the whole person – mind, body and spirit – with innovative educational experiences. Located in Mobile, Ala., Spring Hill’s mission is to form leaders engaged in learning, faith, justice and service for life. As a result, Spring Hill students are engaged, inspired and transformed by their experiences. 

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