A 15-year Transatlantic Research Odyssey
Debates on reparations for slavery have emerged on national and international levels. Despite statutory prohibitions against slave smuggling, American citizens continued to smuggle African captives into the United States. The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA; Spirit of Our Ancestors is the only well-documented work of serious nonfiction that chronicles the transatlantic smuggling crime of the slaver Clotilda, that dramatizes the plight of the last black cargo from their points of capture in the West African interior to their point of disembarkation in Mobile, Alabama in 1860, and that traces the specific means by which thirty members of that fateful cargo triumphed over their tragedy by building their own community known as AfricaTown where many of their descendants still live. In The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors, Dr. Robertson uses cartography, ethnography, etymology, geography, and oral history to connect the Clotilda captives to their geographical and cultural origins in West Africa and to expose their ordeals on the middle passage. After conducting 50 interviews with descendants on both sides of the Atlantic over the course of 15 years, Robertson highlights the descendants' perspectives and raises their voices to allow them to tell their story. Robertson also incorporates aspects of Zora Neale Hurston's interviews with Cudjo Lewis (the last survivor of the Clotilda cargo) and the Clotilda's log written in Captain William Foster's own hand, thereby, meshing diverse voices into a rich and powerful narrative that reveals the centrality of slavery, Africanisms, resistance, and self-empowerment in American culture, all the way to the issue of reparations and community-building in the present day.
FACTS and FUNDERS
National Endowment for the Humanities
Advanced Studies in England, in affiliation with University College, Oxford.
Consortium on Institutional Cooperation-Mellon Foundation
UNCF/Mellon, in affiliation with Spelman College and Gorée Institute (Senegal)
PASALA (Project for the Study of Art and Life in Africa)
Stanley-UI (University of Iowa) Foundation
Author traveled to AfricaTown, Alabama to conduct a feasibility study in connection with the author's Doctoral Dissertation research at the University of Iowa, Chaired by Dr. Allen F. Roberts of the Department of Anthropology.
Guest Speaker. 12th Annual AfricaTown Folk Festival. Feast of Families and Friends. Mobile County Training School. Plateau, Alabama.
Author received research fellowships from the UI-Stanley Foundation and PASALA (Project for the Study of Art and Life in Africa) to travel to the slave port of Whydah (Republic of Benin) to interview descendants of Fon slave dealers who sold the last black cargo to William Foster, Captain of the slave ship Clotilda that called at the port in 1860.
"The AFRICAN ANCESTRY OF THE FOUNDERS OF AFRICATOWN, ALABAMA", PhD dissertation completed as a recipient of the Consortium on Institutional Cooperation - Mellon Foundation Dissertation-Year Fellowship. Dissertation deposited in the Library of Congress.
“Surviving on the Strength, Knowledge, and Wisdom Of Their Ancestors: The Cultural History of AfricaTown, Alabama,” delivered as a component of a panel discussion about the PBS series entitled Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, in collaboration with Noland Walker, a producer of that series (Hampton University).
“The Trans-Atlantic Smuggling Venture Of The Slaver Clotilda,” inaugural lecture in a series held in conjunction with the exhibition Captive Passage: Transatlantic Slave Trade To The Americas. Sponsored by the National Endowment For The Humanities. Mariners’ Museum. Newport News, VA.
“The Nigerian Survivors Of The Clotilda, Last Slave Ship To The United States.” Conference on Nigeria in the 21st Century. University of Texas, Austin.
Scholar Consultant: United States National Slavery Museum. Appointed by The Honorable L. Douglas Wilder, former Governor of Virginia, to serve on the Committee of Scholars who advised on the exhibitions of the United States National Slavery Museum (2002-2008).
UNCF/Mellon Scholar to Senegal. One of ten scholars selected by the UNCF/Mellon Program to participate in its inaugural Faculty Seminar at Gorée Institute (Gorée Island, Senegal), facilitated by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, where she discussed her seminar project entitled “Yoruba Religion As A Metaphysical Mechanism For Surviving Slavery In The New World, ” relative to Cudjo Lewis and other Yoruba-speaking Africans in the Clotilda cargo.
National Endowment For The Humanities Faculty Research Award. Conducted cross-cultural field, archival, and iconographical research in southwestern and central Nigeria in preparation for the publication of The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors.
Advanced Studies in England (in affiliation with University College, Oxford). Taught a signature course entitled “A Semiotic Exploration of the Triangular Slave Trade,” examining the material and iconographic evidence of Britain’s participation in the slave trade. Professor and students used Bristol and Liverpool as landscapes for research and experiential learning (Summer 2006).
“The Clotilda,” “AfricaTown,” “Cudjo Lewis.” Three entries contributed to the first Encyclopedia of the Middle Passage, edited by Toyin Falola (Greenwood Press).
The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors is published by Praeger. Book nominated for a Library of Virginia book award in the non-fiction category.
"History Professor Tells The Story of AfricaTown, Alabama." The Student Connection. Hampton University.
FOX 10 (Mobile, Alabama). Featured guest on “Speak Up,” hosted by news anchorman Eric Reynolds. Discussed The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors, in collaboration with descendants of the Clotilda captives.
Invited by The Honorable L.Douglas Wilder, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the United States National Slavery Museum, to contribute one essay and three chapters to Freedom in My Heart: Voices from the United States Slavery Museum published by the National Geographic Society and nominated for a 2010 NAACP Image Award for best nonfiction literary work of the year. Essay: “Lives of Slave Ships”; Chapter Three: “Stolen Away”; Chapter Eight: “Legacy of Slavery”; Chapter Nine: “I, Too, Am America”
“The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors.” Blacks in Government (BIG) Library of Congress.
Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center and the National Park Service
Dr. Natalie S. Robertson, noted author and Associate Professor at Hampton University comparatively discusses the slave trade's legal and illegal periods using the arrival of the first Africans into Jamestown, Virginia and the smuggling of the last Africans into Mobile, Alabama as backdrops.
James Madison’s Montpelier and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund convene the National Summit on Teaching Slavery. Dr. Robertson is one of 49 scholars to draft the inaugural national rubric on teaching slavery entitled Engaging Descendant Communities in the Teaching of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. This rubric constitutes the first national, interdisciplinary effort to formulate a recognized model for best practices in descendant engagement and slavery interpretation.
"From Barracoon to AfricaTown: How The Clotilda Captives Overcame Their Victimization," a slide-presentation delivered in the College of Arts and Sciences Freshman Seminar Common Text Symposium at Howard University.
February 9 - Keynote Speaker. The Descendants of the Clotilda Present: Spirit of Our Ancestors. 12 -4 p.m. Mobile County Training School. Mobile, Alabama.
Honorary Plaque Recipient - Received Honorary Plaque naming the annual Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival for my book entitled The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors. Awarded by The Clotilda Descendants Association.
February 23 - Keynote Speaker. The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown: A Slide-Presentation. "Connecting to Your Past": African American Genealogy and Cultural Conference, focusing on the making of AfricaTown by the last Africans to be smuggled into the United States. Newport News Public Library. Main Street Branch. 110 Main Street Newport News, VA 23601.
April 12 - Facilitator of Teacher's Workshop entitled "Teaching Slavery Using the Clotida Case as a Didactic Framework." Sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation as a part of statewide consideration of Alabama’s Bicentennial. Troy University (Montgomery Campus).
40 Whitley Hall. 231 Montgomery Street. Montgomery, Alabama.
April 13 - The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors. Lecture and Book-signing. Director's Chat. Hampton University Museum. Hampton, Virginia.
November 19 - An Alabama Shipwreck Reveals The Untold Story of International Slave Trade. National Geographic History Magazine.
August 2- named a Spring Hill College and University of South Alabama NEH Landmarks of America History and Culture virtual workshop facilitator. Dr. Robertson will train K-12 teachers to teach the history of the Clotilda, the last-known U.S. slave ship, and the culture of AfricaTown, the post-Civil War community built by its West African captives. Workshops to be facilitated in 2021.
Interview, "Why History Matters." Project 110: The Last Enslaved Africans Brought to America. Documentary project co-directed by Professors Ryan Noble (SHC) and Joél Billingsley (University of South Alabama). Springhill College. Mobile, Alabama.
May 7 - Panelist, "American Roundtable: "If We Can Save the Ship, We Can Save the Town (Africatown, Alabama)." Zoom Presentation. The Architectural League of New York.
June 21 and 28- Virtual Workshop Facilitator, “The Past is Present: From Africa to Africatown.” A virtual workshop to immerse K-12 educators in the history of the slave ship Clotilda and the post-Civil War community of Mobile’s Africatown. This virtual workshop draws attention to the experiences of Africatown’s founding generation as the final Africans brought to the United States and their resilience in creating a diaspora community that continues to persist in Mobile. Participants will have the opportunity to engage with those living in Africatown today. Additionally, the workshop will train participants in a variety of digital platforms, with the objective of having them chronicle and reflect on their time in the workshop via a digital media project. http://nehlandmarksafricatown.shc.edu
June/July - Judge, The Africatown International Design Idea Competition.
In the Spirit of Our Ancestors
Seeking reparations is a valid pursuit, for there are no people who have been aggrieved but who refuse recompense. However, it is more sustainable to engage in community-building in the tradition and spirit of our ancestors who possessed the knowledge, talent, and technical skills to overcome their victimization as enslaved peoples. In Black communities throughout the African Diaspora (the same is true in Latino and American Indian communities), one finds multi-talented people seeking collaborative opportunities to build new economic ecosystems, to create generational wealth to counteract generational oppression, and to improve the quality of life from within.
Start where you are, in your own community, utilizing the vision, talent, and skills that reside within it.