MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Back in the year 1860, slavery was still legal here in the U.S., but importing slaves from overseas had been outlawed for more than 50 years. So when one Southern plantation owner set out in 1860 to buy a ship and smuggle 110 captives from West Africa to Alabama, he tried to cover his tracks. After the captives were brought ashore, the ship was burned, the evidence destroyed. And it sank deep into mud in the Delta north of Mobile.
The ship was called the Clotilda. And ever since, people have tried to find it. Now a local Alabama reporter believes he may have succeeded. Ben Raines writes for al.com. He joins me now to tell us how he discovered what might be the last American slave ship. Ben Raines, welcome.
BEN RAINES: Thank you - so fun to be here.
KELLY: Tell me about that moment. You were out on the water, and - what? - you saw the remnants of this old wooden schooner just poking out of the mud?
RAINES: Right. It was an incredibly low tide associated with the super-cold weather y'all had in the North with the bomb cyclone. And so I had waited for these low tides to go hunting for the ship. And that moment when I saw it, it was surreal in that I've been by that exact spot many, many times. I've actually fished along that shoreline. And you can't see the ship normally because it's underwater even at low tide.
And so here with the tides, you know, more than 2 feet lower than normal, I saw this this big sort of dinosaur backbone almost barking up out of the mud along the shoreline. As I eased closer, it just came into sharper and sharper focus. You could see the bow. You could see the ribs along the side. And you could see the entire starboard side of the ship. And this thing is over a hundred feet long. You could see the stem, which is the - on the front of a ship, you know those big beams of wood that come up where you would - they would affix the big statue of a lady. Those big timbers were there, and they were unmistakable.
KELLY: And did your heart stop, thinking, oh, man, have I actually found this thing?
RAINES: It did. It did. It was actually breathtaking. And I thought, this might be it.
KELLY: What makes you sure this is the Clotilda?
RAINES: Well, first, I'm not sure. I have a really good hunch, and that was built on a lot of circumstantial evidence. So I began the process of looking for it months ago. And I did that searching the historical record, reading old newspapers, reading actually the captain's account of the trip - every little historical detail I could get. And then I started calling some of the old-timers I know. And one of them in particular whose family has owned property in the Delta for more than a hundred years told me, you know - I said, do you know where it is? And he said, I think I might. And he told me a very precise location.
And so I went to that location where I found a burned ship from the 1800s. And of course the Clotilda was burned. I could tell the ship was old immediately looking at it, and the ship was right where the captain said he burned it. So you know, right there I had three pretty good pieces of evidence.
KELLY: What did happen to the people who came over on the Clotilda? We said there were 110 of them.
KELLY: They arrived to Alabama in 1860. We know that. We know they were freed five years later with the Civil War ending. Where'd they go?
RAINES: When the war ended, they all tried to come together. They actually asked Timothy Meaher, the plantation owner, if he would pay to send them home. He refused. They asked the U.S. government. The U.S. government also refused because they weren't registered as slaves, so they couldn't even qualify for the proverbial 40 acres and a mule. In the end...
KELLY: So they're stuck in Alabama. What'd they do?
RAINES: So they worked and made some money and actually bought a parcel of land from the plantation owner, and they created a community and called it Africatown. And they lived there. They spoke their native tongue. They farmed in their traditional methods. They made a church. And actually the community is still there. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. And a lot of the descendants of the original slaves are still there.
KELLY: Still there - and when they learned that maybe the Clotilda had been found, what did they say about what it would mean to them and to their families?
RAINES: It's been a very profound experience. I have communicated with a number of them. I'm still getting emails from them. And they talk about, you know, closure. And a lot of them are very excited. They're actually has, you know - at different times in history, partly by the plantation owner, there were efforts to pretend it never happened. So finding the ship and being able to tie it to their experience is a very powerful thing and could go a long way toward, you know, healing some of those old wounds I think.
KELLY: Ben Raines - he's a reporter for al.com, and he was telling us there about the mystery of the Clotilda which he maybe just solved. Ben Raines, thanks very much.
RAINES: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.