The recent finding of ship wreckage in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta gained worldwide attention. Some locals and historians thought it might be the Clotilda, the 19th-century ship that brought captive Africans to mobile illegally.
Archaeologists did determine it was not the Clotilda. But the new attention has given descendants of the captives another opportunity to share their stories about the people who built Africatown. One of the descendants James Lee, recently shared with FOX10 News, the unique story of his ancestor Peter Lee.
"I got most of my history from my aunt when she talked, and she would tell us things about him," said James Lee. James Lee has known all his life he is a descendant of a captive on the Clotilda, the ship considered by several historians, as America's last slave ship. The Clotilda arrived in Mobile carrying 110-bound Africans in 1860, shortly before the start of the Civil War. Lee's family history has been passed down in an oral tradition.
"It was told that he was different from the other people on the ship, he was not a captive slave, he was a family member of kings, royalty, he was given as a gift to the captain, William Foster, who brought over the slaves. Then he became enslaved and this is where the journey started," stated Lee.
Lee was told his great-great-grandfather Gumpa was a prince from West Africa, most likely from the area of today's Benin. He took the name Peter Lee here in America.
After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, many Clotilda captives petitioned officials to return them to Africa. They were refused. So Lee and others built a life, homes and raised families in Mobile County. The chimney of Lee's home still stands today on a high point, just west of the Cochrane-Africatown bridge. "As a child, I grew up in that house and I played in that yard, so the chimney still means a lot to me, it used to belong to my great-great-grandfather," shared Lee. Peter Lee did not live the life of a prince in America. In Africatown, making a living was hard. But, Lee and the former Clotilda captives developed a rare and special community, unlike any other in the United States. They preserved some of their native culture and language. The community also recognized Lee's character.
"The people he was with that came over on the ship, they believed in him, they thought highly of him, they even thought enough to make him a judge. Whenever they had problems he would be the one to solve a lot of things they had. He worked like they did, but he was still a little bit elevated, he was a leader for them," Lee said.
They built a church that's still a house of worship today. Peter Lee is listed as a founding member. Descendant of royalty, a community leader, and church builder, one would think James Lee grew up proud of his heritage.
"Being honest with you until I was twenty-something, I really wasn't interested in it, but as I got older I started listening," Lee shared.
At the church, you can see the chimney of Peter Lee's home and his final resting place, the historic Africatown cemetery. Sadly, no records exist to pinpoint Lee's grave, as well as the graves of most of the Clotilda captives. But, the multi-million dollar grant to build a new welcome center and the recent finding of wreckage first thought to be the Clotilda has created new excitement. "I would like to see it placed out here to benefit this area, to give kids something to come to see, and have a story to be told, this history is important. So, now that Peter Lee's name is there, the painting is there, the chimney remains there, then we have something that our family can be proud of," Lee stated.
The history of Africatown and the Clotilda captives will continue to be told in the future thanks to the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council. Earlier this month, it awarded the City of Mobile, money for several projects.
More than three and a half million dollars of the money will go to establishing a new Africatown Welcome Center and a tourism program. Officials hope to break ground on the welcome center by the end of this year. And the State of Alabama's Historical Commission says they will seek funding to examine other shipwrecks, as the search for the remains of the Clotilda continues.
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