‘Descendant’ Explained: What Had Happened To The People Of Africatown? What Was ‘Clotilda’?

In the autumn of 1859, the last known US slave ship was brought from Africa to the Mount Bay area in America, bringing over 110 African men, women, and children. The ship was called the Clotilda. “Descendant” is a Netflix documentary that digs deeper into the past of those 110 African slaves and the future they hold. The documentary covers the trail of the descendants or survivors of the last known slave ship. These people created a small place for themselves by the name of Africa Town. The place holds ancestral values and a rich heritage. The documentary is a reflection of the struggles endured by their ancestors, the mystery of Clotilda, and the celebration of the legacy of the people of Africatown.


Spoilers Ahead

The Past – A Ship That Brought 110 African Slaves To The American Land 

In 1808, the international slave trade with the United States was abolished. Although, for a long time, the sale and trafficking of human beings continued. It was not until 1865 that the slave trade was considered a federal crime and was charged with the death penalty. The descendants narrate their stories as the documentary unwraps their lives and their past. In July 2018, local, state, and national organizations worked together to locate the last remains of the Clotilda. Timothy Meaher, a businessman, made a bet that he could transport slaves even after the abolition of slavery. In April 1860, Captain William Foster, who made the ship Clotilda, set sail for Dahomey in Africa and then made his way back to Mobile Bay. These Africans were sold and then enslaved. After the trade, William Foster burned and buried the ship to erase any evidence of the trade. People were asked never to mention the trade, but the stories have been passed down from generation to generation to the descendants of Clotilda. For about a century, the history of the people of Africatown was hidden. As kids, we went on field trips and picnics with our parents, Emmet Lewis, one of the descendants, used to go to the graveyard every morning around three or four o’clock with his father. His father wanted him to be connected to his ancestors. This is how important history has been for the people of Africatown. Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, the last known survivor of the Clotilda ship, was a remarkable figure for the people of Africatown. Zora Neale Hurston, an author and filmmaker, shot a clip of Cudjoe Lewis in 1928. Zora captured all his stories into a book she titled “Barracoon.” She gave the stories the voice of Cudjoe Lewis, and the book was meant to be published in 1931 but was locked away in a vault till 2018.


Finding The Slave Vessel – Clotilda 

At the Hope Community Center’s 2018 meeting, National Geographic and the SEARCH team worked together to find the Clotilda ship. They followed the stories and traced the untouched areas of the sea. They were successful in finding a part of Clotilda. But they weren’t the first ones to do so; they believed they were, but they weren’t. Nick Tabor, a journalist, dug through records and found a letter from Augustine Meaher dated back to 1994. The letter is for his father, Augustine Jr.; in the letter, it’s mentioned that there was no trouble locating the slave vessel. It means they knew about the vessel, but they intentionally misled their friend, who wanted to find the vessel. They had hidden the existence of the vessel all along. At the National Geographic Press Conference on May 29, 2019, the SEARCH community presented hope to the people of Africatown. They had found the vessel sunk 20 feet underwater. National Geographic presented an illustration of Clotilda and the people of Africatown. The art piece made the people cry, and they felt closer than ever to their ancestors. All the suffering and pain they had to endure could be seen through the artwork. 

The Story Of Africatown 

After being enslaved for a long period, the people finally gained their freedom. They knew the land was important; they had been taught that land gives you a voice. So, they made a little town for themselves and called it Africatown. The place is surrounded by industries that pollute the water and the air. Oil industries, paper mills, and a dump yard for every possible industrial waste. Africatown is the story of a historic land turned into an industrial dump yard. One of the descendants narrates how the paper from the paper mill would fall over the school, and the children would play with it. The people of Africatown were victims of cancer and various other health hazards. The mills were held responsible for the poor health conditions of the people. In 2010, International Paper closed its Africatown plant. In 2017, the company was sued by over 1,000 plaintiffs for contaminating the air and soil. The company agreed to a settlement, giving as little as $200 to every plaintiff, but never accepted the allegations.


The Present And The Future Of The Africatown Community 

Africatown became a tourist hotspot after the discovery of Clotilda. The last slave ship survivors became storytellers in the eyes of the world. The people of the Africatown community came together to change the shape of their land. They are happy to finally earn a piece of their history that was hidden for centuries. They feel connected to the town now more than ever, although they are scared that they will lose it to tourism. While, ofcourse, it’s good for the economy, wouldn’t that make the descendants another type of tourist that can come and visit Africatown? The descendants wish to be the voice of Africatown, a voice that shapes the future of the community. The community wants to preserve its essence. The Meahers were raised with the perspective that their ancestors were great beings who, with their courage, conquered the world. Little did they know that those courageous actions meant enslaving innocent people and forbidding them from their land. The people of the community plan on giving their kids and grandkids swimming training. They want their generations to have a connection with their ancestors. They believe in raising divers who would connect back to the ship of their ancestors. In 2020, the governor of Alabama declared February 8 as a day to honor the descendants of Clotilda. This is an achievement for the Africatown community. A moment where the Meahers, the descendants, and the SEARCH team who worked on the mission to bring back Clotilda came together. Years later, the Foster ( family of William Foster- the Captain) and the Lewis (descendants of Cudjo Lewis) mark together a moment in history redefining the old historic moments captured in a photograph. 

The documentary motivates people to bring out their ancestral stories, let their past be heard and work together as a community. The Africatown people finally sought justice and got a chance to connect with their ancestors. The documentary ends on a motivational note showing a bright future for the people of Africatown. 


The Africatown Heritage Center will open by the fall of 2022, followed by the Africatown Welcome Center in the next three years. The Clotilda is the most intact slave ship ever, with the possibility of linking the living descendants to the DNA preserved on the ship. Africatown’s community fights together against the havoc of the industries to preserve their heritage and their land. I believe the documentary enlightens every community to look behind and to look for their story.

“Descendant” is a 2022 netflix documentary film directed by Margaret Brown.

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Mehak Arora
Mehak Arora
Mehak is a media student currently pursuing her masters in audio and visual production. She is a film enthusiast. She loves to travel. She is a photographer and loves to write about films.

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