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Descendants of Alabama slave owner say they're "figuring out next steps" to make amends

Descendants of Clotilda slave ship speak up
Descendants of Africans on slave ship on reconciliation with family of Alabama enslaver 22:20

Descendants of enslaved Africans and descendants of the slave owner who bankrolled their voyage to America sat down together in a historic meeting to talk about reconciliation over the summer, after years of effort to set up a meeting. 

The descendants of Alabama slave owner Timothy Meaher –who hired Capt. William Foster to smuggle 110 captive Africans to Mobile on his ship, Clotilda– had for years refused to meet with the descendants of the enslaved brought to the U.S.

But last year, a new generation of the Meahers took control of the family business and, over the last year, they've explored what they might do to make amends. 

What was the Clotilda? 

Slavery was still legal in the southern United States in 1860, when Timothy Meaher hired Captain Foster, but importing enslaved persons into America had been outlawed since 1808. Meaher sent the ship to the Kingdom of Dahomey, in West Africa, where Foster in his journal described purchasing the captives using "$9,000 in gold."

The enslaved Africans were locked naked in the cargo hold of the Clotilda. Forty five days later, the group of 110 men, women and children arrived and were handed over to Meaher, his brother and several others. Foster then burned and sank the Clotilda to cover up the crime.

The Clotilda is the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America. 

What happened to the enslaved Africans?

The Clotilda survivors were freed after five years of slavery. Kossula, whose enslaver called him Cudjo Lewis, was among them. The survivors asked Timothy Meaher to help return them to Africa, but he refused, Kossula said in an interview in 1914. Meaher also tried to prevent them from voting. Some found work in a sawmill that Meaher owned.

In 1868, three years after emancipation, 30 of the freed Africans from the Clotilda founded Africatown. It's now the only surviving community in America founded by Africans. Some of their descendants still call it home. 

Africatown today

Around 800 people still live in Africatown, down from 12,000 in the 1960s. An interstate highway was built through the middle of Africatown in the early 1990s, and the small clusters of remaining homes are surrounded by factories and chemical plants. 

Timothy Meaher's descendants still own an estimated 14% of the land in historic Africatown, according to tax records. Their name is on nearby street signs and property markers. Court filings indicate their real estate and timber businesses are worth an estimated $36 million. 

The wreckage of the Clotilda was discovered in a nearby part of the Mobile River in 2018, with maritime archaeologists confirming the ship was the Clotilda the following year.

60 Minutes visited the wreckage of the Clotilda in 2020
60 Minutes visited the wreckage of the Clotilda in 2020 60 Minutes

Since the Clotilda's discovery, some $10 million in city, state, federal and philanthropic funds have gone into the revitalization of Africatown. 

But even after the Clotilda's discovery, descendants of Meaher refused to meet with the descendants of the enslaved Africans brought on the ship. When 60 Minutes reached out to four members of the Meaher family in 2020, they all either declined or didn't respond to requests for an interview.

A historic change 

This past July, some of the descendants met in a conference room at Mobile's history museum. Pat Frazier, the great great granddaughter of Lottie Dennison, was among them. Frazier was representing the Clotilda Descendants Association, along with Joycelyn Davis and organization President Jeremy Ellis. 

"I previously thought that this day would never happen, ladies," Frazier said. "Because people kept saying, 'The Meahers have kept quiet,' you know? 'We've tried to approach them. They've only spoken through their lawyers.'"

The Clotilda descendants sat across from Meg Meaher and her sister Helen, great great granddaughters of Timothy Meaher. 

"We were silent for far too long and we were distant for far too long," Meg Meaher said. "And we're very happy to be able to finally break the silence and to narrow the distance."

Helen Meaher addressed her family's silence up until now. 

Clotilda and Meaher descendants
Descendants of enslaved Africans brought to Alabama on the Clotilda and descendants of Timothy Meaher, the man who arranged the ship, sat down to talk. 60 Minutes

"Our family, it's like some other families. We have lots of layers, and complexities, and you know some dysfunctions, and we have been in like, a lawsuit, like, among family members," she said. "And that finally resolved just a year ago. So, like, now, it's, you know, really, it's our generation that's been able to, like, step up."

Helen Meaher grew up just a few miles from Africatown, but she had never been there until last year, when she started volunteering at a food bank. In 2021, she and Meg sold a plot of land in Africatown to the City of Mobile for $50,000, a fraction of its appraised value. It will be home to community development organizations and a new food bank. 

She hopes that in 10 years, Africatown will be a thriving community.

Frazier doesn't hold the Meaher sisters responsible for what their ancestor did. 

"However, I want them to recognize how that behavior benefited them and worked to the disadvantage of us," she said. "Just like they've had multiple generations of wealth, the original slaves and their descendants haven't."

Reconciliation, not reparations

The Clotilda descendants at the meeting stressed that they weren't asking for reparations, but rather reconciliation.

"I have a daughter and I believe that she should have the same level of education that the Meaher family experienced," Ellis said. "We believe that the same level of education should be provided to all descendants."

Working to revitalize Africatown 02:14

They also believe there are parcels of land in historic Africatown that they should have ownership in.

Helen Meaher isn't sure if there are parcels of land in Africatown her family is making money from. She said she would need to review that, since she'd just recently taken on the role in her family. 

"We're still keeping an open mind, and working on figuring out next steps," she said. "And I'm not shutting a door on anything."

The meeting between the descendants lasted about two hours. Though no financial commitments were made, the Meahers have begun removing their property markers and say they're consulting with financial planners and other local groups to see what their next steps might be.

"They've come to the table, trying to do the right thing," Ellis said. "And they want to be intentional with the decisions that are made. So I totally understand that perspective."

The Clotilda descendants hope their meeting can be a model. They said similar conversations need to be held across the nation.

"My hope is that this can be an example of what reconciliation looks like, for the nation, as well as start the healing process for a number of descendants," Ellis said.

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