A Legend Proved True

Bomb Cyclone and Last Slave Ship to America: a Roosevelt Island Connection

Updated 2 years ago David Stone
Typical clippers used to transport kidnapped slaves to America
Typical clippers used to transport kidnapped slaves to America
Public Domain

When I spotted news that wreckage of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach America, confirmed a story many doubted, my thoughts jumped back to a sunny day on Main Street, across from Blackwell House, of all places, when my friend Sylviane Diouf told me her new book, written here, was about this fascinating subject.

Back then, Sylviane and I were infrequent gym acquaintances at 40 River Road. Before I knew she was an award winning author, I learned new ways to benefit from the equipment from her routine.

Then, we'd find ourselves getting off the subway at the same time as she returned to Roosevelt Island from her job at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and I'd ask about her work and whatever book she was working on at the time.

(Unpublished then, I was envious and eager to learn from every successful author I could dig up.)

Coincidentally, the last time we walked up Main Street together, she told me about Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America 

Not all conversations stick with you for a decade, but that one did.

In short, legend had it that Timothy Meaher bought an 86-foot long sailboat, the Clotilda, and used it to win a bet that he could smuggle African slaves into America, decades after the international slave trade was banned. The ugly mission was successful. After off-loading over a hundred kidnapped Africans, the ship was burned to hide the evidence.

The story slipped into legend with doubts about descendents stories clouding history.

Until, that is, this winter's "bomb cyclone" brought extremely low tides to Alabama, exposing the outlines of the Clotilda's wreckage in sand along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Ben Raines, a reporter working for AL.com found it.

The discovery gave Sylviane's book new life. It began climbing the best seller charts anew.

First written, her book won the "...2007 Wesley-Logan Prize of the American Historical Association; the 2009 James F. Sulzby Award for best book on Alabama history from the Alabama Historical Association; and was a finalist for the 2008 Hurston/​Wright Legacy Award for non fiction," according to Sylviane's Amazon Author Page.

I caught up with Sylviane, last week.

She remembers her Roosevelt Island days fondly but not the commute to her job in upper Manhattan, which ultimately along with the creeping surrender or local green space forced her to move. She now lives near Fort Tryon Park and has recently retired from the Schomburg Center.

She's happy to have her book about the Clotilda selling again and with having more time devoted to writing.

Her newest work, Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, was published by NYU Press and is available on Amazon.

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