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Director Margaret Brown and Veda Tunstall on their new documentary, 'Descendant'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For generations, the story of the slave ship Clotilda had taken on an almost mythical status. It was long rumored to have been the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S. But evidence of its wreckage eluded researchers for decades until one day in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They found the Clotilda. They found the Clotilda. They did confirm that it is the ship. I know it's...

CHANG: A hundred fifty-nine years earlier, in 1860, the ship arrived in Mobile Bay, Ala., carrying more than a hundred Africans. The U.S. at that point had outlawed the international slave trade more than a half-century before, but that didn't stop one wealthy man in Mobile from hatching an ambitious plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DESCENDANT")

VEDA TUNSTALL: Timothy Meaher, a local businessman, went and got a bunch of Africans and brought us - brought them back here to the mouth of the Mobile River, just let them off the boat and burned the ship to conceal the crime.

CHANG: That's Veda Tunstall in the new documentary "Descendant," which focuses on the slave ship and her survivors. Some of those survivors founded the all-Black community of Africatown after the Civil War ended. Many of their descendants still live there. Earlier this year, after a Sundance screening, I spoke with filmmaker Margaret Brown and Clotilda descendant Veda Tunstall. Veda told me she only started learning about the Clotilda fairly recently - about 10 years ago.

TUNSTALL: But the thing is I've known my history all my life. My great-aunt Doodle (ph) - you know, she lived in Africatown. It wasn't called Africatown. It was just Plateau.

CHANG: Right, Plateau.

TUNSTALL: I knew things about where my ancestors came from, but nobody sat down and said, we are descendants of the Clotilda. Our people are from Benin, Nigeria, Ghana - wherever we're from. They never said that. So just in the last few years, we were like, oh, OK. Fit this piece from that year together and this piece, and now we know the story. But we've heard it all our lives.

CHANG: Well, now that the ship's remains have been discovered, even though you always knew what the truth was, does the actual physical discovery of the remains reshape your family's story in any way to you?

TUNSTALL: It really just validates to the rest of the world that this is true. And it has made the world look at Africatown and the descendants in a whole different way because they never really thought anything about this story. It's just, like, native - local folklore.

CHANG: Right.

TUNSTALL: But now, you know, it's on the worldwide stage, so they have to pay attention to it.

CHANG: "Descendant" is about the rediscovery of the Clotilda and what happened in Mobile more than a hundred years ago. And it's about the way that history has continued to ripple into the present. You see; the Meaher family are still major landowners in the area. Their name, their imprint - it's everywhere. Here's filmmaker Margaret Brown, who is white.

MARGARET BROWN: There's a scene where we're driving around the neighborhood, and there's just Chippewa Lakes signs everywhere. So when you're there, it's just a very visible thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DESCENDANT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Meaher family land is called Chippewa Lakes. There's a sign. That's another one right there. And they're, like, right next to each other.

BROWN: I think the city also owns a lot of land in Africatown. So, you know, you can see these contours of injustice, like, still going along the same lines.

CHANG: And that injustice is not just about who owns the land but what is on the land and how that's affecting the health and well-being of the Black residents who live there today.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DESCENDANT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Africatown is completely surrounded in every direction by some form of heavy industry.

CHANG: For years, the community there has been concerned about the high rates of cancer and recurring mysterious illnesses in their community.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DESCENDANT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There was a lead smelter in Africatown. There was a DOD hazardous waste dump in Africatown. Then you had International Paper Company, and you have...

CHANG: Back in 2017, a group of residents filed a class-action lawsuit over industrial pollution, alleging that harmful chemicals were created and released by the International Paper Company's plant, which was built on land owned by the Meaher family. The lawsuit was settled in 2020. I asked filmmaker Margaret Brown to talk about the connection she sees between the Clotilda and the pollution still impacting the community today.

BROWN: Cancer clusters are kind of hard to, quote-unquote, "prove." But what you can say is certain polluters are dumping toxic chemicals at a rate that we know to be cancerous in a neighborhood.

CHANG: Yeah.

BROWN: And that is certainly, like - was happening around Africatown. Like, there are still so many things today that, like, you wouldn't want to put your house next to. There's also just a lot of noise pollution. Like, how do you sleep when there's a factory alarm going off next to your house?

CHANG: Yeah.

BROWN: There was no way I could not put it in the film, knowing as many people as I did in the community that had gotten cancer and knowing how much was released into the water and the air around that community.

CHANG: But the heart of Africatown is with its people and their descendants. And as Veda Tunstall says, the discovery of the Clotilda has helped people in her community deepen their own understanding of their own personal histories.

TUNSTALL: It caused kind of mixed feelings at first. I felt like I should know these things. But then, at the same time, I'm grateful somebody was able to put it together for me. You know, my son saw this film, and it opened up a great conversation between the two of us, so I was able to explain things to him in ways that I wasn't able to before.

CHANG: Like what?

TUNSTALL: So I was able - I told him who we're descended from. We're descendants of Pollee and Rose Allen. And I've explained to him about Pollee Allen's first wife and second wife and who the children are, about the Meahers. You know, he had never heard of the Meahers, either. And he was thinking, now, that just makes me wonder if I know anybody with that last name. It made it really personal. It opened our eyes a lot.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you know, the discovery of the ruins of the Clotilda - it has brought into sharper focus this larger question about reparations. And, Veda, after knowing more about your family's history, knowing more about what happened in the last 160 years, what would justice look like for you? I know that's a huge question, but what would you like to see happen to acknowledge the Clotilda?

TUNSTALL: This is a question I've been pondering for about the last three or four years. Reparations is so difficult. It's so complex. There's really no way to repay all of us for all the harm that was done. The fact that I've never set foot on my home land through no fault of my own - who knows how that can be repaid? At this point, I just feel like Africatown - you know, the Meahers brought us here. Investment back into that community is definitely a way to repay some of the damage, to make this community self-sustaining again. If Africatown could get its community back, that feels a little like justice to me. That's just the start. I think that's just the start.

CHANG: Well, I know that a museum for the Clotilda is underway in Africatown. What do you think is the best way to remember the Clotilda today?

TUNSTALL: I think the museum is a great way to remember, but I feel like the people are more the story than the ship. We are the greatest relics from the ship, honestly. And we're here. We're fighting for our space. And we are still able to be jubilant and to just be proud of who we are. We are shouting it from the mountaintops right now who we are. It's really a source of pride now. It was a source of shame back then. But now, yes, we're descendants of the Africans on the Clotilda. We're proud as can be.

CHANG: That was filmmaker Margaret Brown and Clotilda descendant Veda Tunstall speaking with me about the new documentary "Descendant." It's on Netflix right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF KILLER MIKE SONG, "RUN FT. DAVE CHAPPELLE AND YOUNG THUG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.