Taking advantage of the low water levels and cooler-than-normal temperatures, Ben Raines took his boat out on Alabama's Mobile-Tensaw River Delta on Jan. 2 and saw it sticking out of the mud "like a dinosaur backbone" — the wreckage of what he believes is the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States.
Raines, a reporter for AL.com, decided in September to find the Clotilda. Everyone knew the story of the ship, which brought slaves to Alabama decades after it was made illegal to import slaves, but no one was sure where it was. He'd been told the wreckage was visible in the early 1900s, and after reading historical accounts and talking with old-timers, he thought he'd figured out the vicinity of its final resting place. When Raines saw the starboard of a ship sticking out of the mud, he was excited, but remembering that the ship was likely used to transport 110 men, women, and children into slavery sobered him. "What a harrowing thing, in every way, to think about," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher had the Clotilda built to help him win a bet that he'd be able to bring in a ship filled with slaves and not get caught. When the ship arrived with the slaves in 1860, the Clotilda was set on fire to destroy the evidence. The slaves, set free at the end of the Civil War, ended up starting their own neighborhood in Mobile, Africatown, where they spoke their native language and used African farming techniques. The last survivor, Cujdo Lewis, died at 94 in 1935.
Raines has brought several experts and archaeologists to look at the ship, who agree the wreckage dates back to the mid-1800s and has signs of being burned. It still needs to be positively identified as the Clotilda, and before anyone can dig the ship up, the Alabama Historical Commission needs to grant permission. Catherine Garcia