By Laura Lorek, Publisher of Silicon Hills News
Descendant, a new documentary from Participant, Netflix, and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions tells a story that has been left out of history books. The story centers on the descendants of Africatown and the search for the Clotilda, one of the last recorded ships to illegally bring enslaved Africans to the U.S.
A Congressional Act made it illegal in 1808 for Americans to engage in the slave trade. But the film reports that Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner, who built the Clotilda, bet that he could outwit authorities and bring slaves to Alabama in 1860. He hired Captain William Foster to sail the ship to Africa to buy 110 Africans and bring them back to Mobile.
Filmmaker Margaret Brown documents the search for and historic discovery of the Clotilda. Journalist Ben Raines discovered the shipwreck in 2019, 159 years after it was intentionally set ablaze and sunk to cover up the crime. The film notes that no one from the Meaher family would comment.
The movie blends history and modern-day activism by the people of Africatown seamlessly. It features film footage shot by Nora Neale Hurston, an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker, of Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda.
In the movie, Africatown residents read excerpts from Hurston’s book “Barracoon, The Story of the Last Black Cargo.” The book was published in 2018, 87 years after Neale Hurston wrote it. And it details Lewis’ story of being captured in Africa, enslaved, and brought to America on board the Clotilda.
In Descendant, Emmett Lewis, 32, a descendant of Cudjoe, speaks about the importance of telling his family’s story.
Lewis and other descendants of the Clotilda founded Africatown just north of Mobile, in a town formerly known as Magazine Point. After they were freed following the Civil War, they bought the land. The community became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Today, descendants of Africatown are still fighting for economic and environmental justice. The townsite was home to a now-shuttered International Paper mill. Residents sued the company for releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Several residents have gotten cancer. According to the movie, residents received $200 each from the lawsuit. Africatown residents are still fighting against active industrial chemical plants, quarries, and other businesses that pollute.
At the event, Joey Womack, founder and CEO of Goodie Nation, interviewed his father, Joe Womack, an Africatown native and retired Marine Corp. Major. Womack, 72, is featured in Descendant as one of Africatown’s community organizers. He runs Clean, Health, Educated, Safe & Sustainable, or C.H.E.S.S, a nonprofit organization.
Womack grew up in Africatown with International Paper and Scott Paper mills operating nearby. He recalled ash falling from the sky and onto his sandwich and into his drink. He said a lot of his peers are no longer here because they grew up in a toxic environment. He’s still fighting against environmental pollution in Africatown. A decade ago, he worked to organize a fight against a Canadian tar-sands storage facility and pipeline.
“I tell people all the time pollution is just another word for poison,” Womack said. “You are releasing poison into the air, you are poisoning me, you actually want to poison me in my community. No, you can’t come here. You have to use words like that.”
The most important weapons against polluting industry, land grabbers, and others seeking to do harm to Africatown is the stories, Womack said.
“Keep telling the stories,” Womack said. “The tremendous stories are the truth you don’t have to fabricate it, you don’t have to dress it up, the story is here and there’s one thing that we have that the other two generations didn’t have, and it’s called the Internet. You put stuff on the Internet and then it goes all over the world.”
Descendant recounts 1860 was when the enslavement of Africatown began but enslavement still exists today, Womack said.
“Enslavement is not just whips and stuff, but it’s mental,” Womack said.
The story of Descendant still continues today, Womack said. The story is still being written, he said.
“And we’re asking the world to be a part of this story,” Womack said.
At its height, Africatown had about 12,000 people, but now it’s down to 2,000 people, but the land is still there, Womack said. A lot of houses have been torn down, but a lot of structures still exist. Womack thinks they can get the community back to 5,000 to 6,000 people by putting in housing and repairing houses that are in disrepair.
Womack envisions Africatown’s Museum on the Clotilda and its descendants having as big a tourism impact as Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims of lynching in the United States. The economic impact from tourism for the city of Montgomery in the first 12 months of the museum being open was $1 billion, Womack said.
Beyond the film, the message from organizers was a plea to preserve black history. Participant, the filmmaker, recently partnered with kinkofa to launch DescendantFilm.com, an impact hub that features their platform, Rememory, a mobile and web-based application to document and archive family stories. Tameshia Rudd-Ridge and Jourdan Brunson, co-founders of kinkofa created kinkofa and Rememory to preserve the stories of black people.
Stories like Descendant are often left out of American history books, which is why it’s important to preserve family history through an app like Rememory, Brunson said during a panel discussion following the film.
Participant is a connector with partners like Womack’s C.H.E.S.S. to elevate their work which will help what’s happening in Africatown, Michael Kelly, vice president of Participant, said in a panel discussion following the film.
Netflix gives the film an opportunity to have a wider reach, Kelly said.
“When you get a platform such as Netflix, what you have the ability to do is allow a story like this to be elevated literally around the world,” Kelly said. “And people don’t even have to leave their homes to be able to watch it.
Descendant is now streaming on Netflix.