Ship may make case for repa­ra­tions

Dis­cov­ery of last slave ship in Ala. could spur de­bate

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Jay Reeves

MO­BILE, Ala. — Alabama steamship owner Ti­mothy Mea­her fi­nanced the last slave ves­sel that brought African cap­tives to the United States, and he came out of the Civil War a wealthy man.

His descen­dants, with land worth mil­lions, are still part of Mo­bile so­ci­ety’s up­per crust.

The peo­ple whom Mea­her en­slaved, how­ever, emerged from the war with free­dom but lit­tle else. Cen­sus forms that doc­u­mented Mea­her’s post­war riches list them as la­bor­ers, house­wives and farm­ers with noth­ing of value. Many of their descen­dants to­day hold work­ing-class jobs.

Now, the his­tory of Mea­her and the slave ship Clotilda may of­fer one of the more clear-cut cases for slav­ery repa­ra­tions, with iden­ti­fi­able per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims.

While no for­mal push for repa­ra­tions has be­gun, the sub­ject has been bub­bling up qui­etly among com­mu­nity mem­bers since ear­lier this year, when ex­perts said they found the wreck­age of the Clotilda in muddy wa­ters near Mo­bile. Some say too many years have passed for repa­ra­tions; oth­ers say the dis­cov­ery of the ship makes the tim­ing per­fect.

Many Clotilda descen­dants say rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Mea­hers would suf­fice, per­haps a chance to dis­cuss an in­ter­twined his­tory. Oth­ers hope the fam­ily helps with am­bi­tious plans to trans­form a down­trod­den com­mu­nity into a tourist at­trac­tion. Some want cash; some want noth­ing.

Repa­ra­tions de­bates usu­ally in­volve re­dress for the mul­ti­tude of descen­dants from about 4 mil­lion black peo­ple who were en­slaved in the United States. But with Congress con­sid­er­ing whether to cre­ate a repa­ra­tions study com­mis­sion, what might a sin­gle in­stance of repa­ra­tions look like in the city where this na­tion’s At­lantic slave trade fi­nally ended?

Pat Fra­zier, a de­scen­dant of Mea­her slave James Den­ni­son, isn’t sure. But she’s un­happy about the lack of jus­tice and what many con­sider the deaf­en­ing si­lence of the Mea­her fam­ily.

“I’ve never known them to just own up to what hap­pened,” said Fra­zier, 68.

In Mo­bile, like many South­ern com­mu­ni­ties, descen­dants of slave own­ers and en­slaved peo­ple are of­ten neigh­bors, though in vastly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

Orig­i­nally from Maine, Mea­her moved South and got rich off steam­boats and a sawmill. He pur­chased the schooner Clotilda for a re­ported $35,000 and fi­nanced a slave ex­pe­di­tion to West Africa the year be­fore the war be­gan.

The in­ter­na­tional slave trade was al­ready out­lawed, but Mea­her wa­gered he could im­port slaves in de­fi­ance of the ban. Ar­rested af­ter the ship car­ry­ing about 110 cap­tives ar­rived and was scut­tled in Mo­bile in 1860, he was cleared of charges by a judge, ac­cord­ing to “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” a book by Syl­viane A. Diouf.

His­tor­i­cal ac­counts say Mea­her re­fused to pro­vide land af­ter the war to the freed Africans, who then scraped to­gether money to pur­chase prop­erty. They founded a com­mu­nity called “Africa­town USA,” where some of the west­African ways of the on­ceenslaved peo­ple were pre­served. Its rem­nants still ex­ist.

Mea­her listed as­sets in­clud­ing $20,000 in land and per­sonal prop­erty in the 1870 Cen­sus. Court records from 2012 say the Mea­her fam­ily real es­tate com­pany held $35 mil­lion in as­sets in­clud­ing 22,000 acres of land, tim­ber plus rental in­come and cash. Tax records show Mea­her rel­a­tives re­main large landown­ers, with $20 mil­lion in prop­erty through the cor­po­ra­tion.

One of Ti­mothy Mea­her’s dis­tant grand­daugh­ters was feted as the white queen of the city’s racially seg­re­gated Mardi Gras in 2007. The black queen that year was a de­scen­dant of one of the Clotilda Africans.

The Mo­bile area fea­tures Mea­her State Park and Mea­her Av­enue near Africa­town, and the Mea­her fam­ily has signs through­out the area of­fer­ing land for lease. A red con­crete marker bear­ing the fam­ily’s name stands in the Ten­saw Delta near the spot where the Clotilda’s re­mains were found last year.

There’s no con­sen­sus on what repa­ra­tions might in­clude for Clotilda descen­dants.

Joyce­lyn Davis, who helped or­ga­nize the Clotilda Descen­dants As­so­ci­a­tion, said con­ver­sa­tion would be a good start. “If we could just sit down at the ta­ble and just talk that would be a pow­er­ful thing,” she said.

Bill Green, a de­scen­dant of Clotilda cap­tive Ossa Keeby, said peo­ple are due more than talk. He called repa­ra­tions an “ex­cel­lent idea.” If not per­sonal pay­ments to Clotilda descen­dants, they could in­clude con­tri­bu­tions to some group to help descen­dants, per­haps to re­vi­tal­ize Africa­town parks, a me­mo­rial, a Clotilda replica, hous­ing and busi­nesses.

“I think it would be eq­ui­table for them to make some pay­ment to the descen­dants of the Clotilda cargo. What is right? I think we’re in a prime po­si­tion to have our court sys­tem de­cide some­thing,” said Green, of Texas.

Diouf, who has closely stud­ied the Clotilda and Africa­town, said the Mea­her clan in­her­ited gen­er­a­tional wealth while Ti­mothy Mea­her’s cap­tives scraped by.

The Na­tional African Amer­i­can Repa­ra­tions Com­mis­sion, formed in 2015, is seek­ing an apol­ogy for slav­ery plus money for busi­ness devel­op­ment, health, ed­u­ca­tion, his­toric preser­va­tion, hous­ing, crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form and more.

The Mea­hers aren’t say­ing what if any­thing they want to do, and have made no pub­lic com­ment about the Clotilda dis­cov­ery.

“The Mea­hers aren’t go­ing to sur­face, par­tic­u­larly now that the Clotilda has been found,” said Eric Fin­ley, who op­er­ates an African Amer­i­can her­itage tour in Mo­bile.

KEVIN MCGILL/AP

A mu­ral along Africa­town Boule­vard in Mo­bile, Alabama, de­picts Clotilda, the last ship that brought slaves to the U.S.

JAY REEVES/AP

The tomb of Ti­mothy Mea­her, who or­ga­nized and fi­nanced the last U.S. slave voy­age to Africa us­ing the schooner Clotilda, is shown in Mo­bile, Alabama.

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