Auburn engineering alumnus discusses family, Alabama connection to last American slave ship

Article body

Did you know 110 men and women were illegally shipped out of their homeland in 1860 and forced into labor after landing in Mobile, Alabama? Did you know that within three years after earning their freedom in 1865, they purchased land, built their own school, a church, established U.S. citizenship and voted?

Viewers can learn more about the resiliency of survivors from various tribes in Africa, who established Africatown, a Mobile community, and their journey aboard the ship Clotilda when National Geographic’s documentary, “Clotilda: The Last American Slave Ship,” airs Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. CT

Jeremy Ellis, who earned a degree in software engineering from Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering in 2003, is a sixth-generation descendant of two Clotilda survivors, Pollee and Rose Allen. He will co-narrate the documentary with other descendants, archeologists and historians.

“My hope is viewers learn what the survivors endured and then accomplished in the years after the Civil War,” said Ellis, a change management professional at Accenture in Atlanta. “For them to establish the community, Africatown, with a governing body, build schools and churches—and become U.S. citizens is very inspirational. It’s a story we need to continue to tell because it is part of American history.”

Story isn’t about the Clotilda

The survivors were relocated against their will when American shipbuilder/landowner Timothy Meaher and others invested funds to use Meaher’s ship, Clotilda, to illegally smuggle them overseas, where they were forced into labor. Captained by William Foster, the Clotilda arrived at the Port of Mobile on July 8, 1860, unloaded its passengers and was burned to destroy evidence.

The ship’s remains, however, were discovered in the muddy Mobile River in 2019. Its discovery has been the subject of television documentaries and printed media ever since.

However, Ellis, who participated in a CBS episode of 60 Minutes, insists the real story isn’t about the ship. It’s about people. His people.

After slavery was abolished in 1865, Ellis said the survivors began working 12-hour days (one hour free of charge) for $1 per day. Collectively, the amount was enough to eventually purchase land, build houses and start a community.

Eight years after their voyage, some became U.S. citizens. Citizenship meant voting, and three survivors headed to the polls.

“They approached the polling station and when they arrived, Timothy Meaher, who was the one who funded the trip, stopped them,” noted Ellis, who grew up in Mobile. “They were going to vote for the first time, but Timothy Meaher was there on horseback, and he basically said, ‘No, they can’t vote here. They’re Africans, not Americans.’”

Ellis added the survivors walked toward another polling station, but Meaher—on horseback—arrived first and prevented them.

“They were so determined to vote, the three of them looked up to the heavens, they’re very spiritual people,” Ellis said. “At a third location, Meaher wasn’t around. They were, however, forced to pay a poll tax to vote, which was a full day’s work. But they ended up paying that dollar and voted for the first time.”

Less than 10 years after being enslaved in Africa, forced into a Transatlantic voyage and made to labor on south Alabama plantations, the survivors of Clotilda had established a community, become citizens of a Western nation and had a political voice.

More must be done

What are Africatown’s needs today? Plenty, Ellis says.

“Africatown needs a lot of support economically, educationally, environmentally, but the descendants as well,” said Ellis, whose grandmother, Beatrice Ellis, was the last president of the Africatown Direct Descendants of Clotilda organization. “From an Africatown perspective, there are numbers of social, economic and environmental justices that need to be addressed by county and city officials.

“Those things need to be done at a local level. From a state or federal perspective, the federal government should be very involved with this particular story around reconciliation, particularly reparations. I think that’s a part of the story that needs to be discussed more.

“The injustices are that crimes were committed by members of the Meaher, Foster and John Dabney families,” said, Ellis, who remains actively involved in Africatown’s advancement through newspaper columns, multiple podcasts (including Dreams of Africa in Alabama and Searching for Clotilda) and local organizations. “The Justice Department needs to open those cases, based off the new evidence that was found (Clotilda) and everything that we’ve learned since the burning of the ship. It’s nice to know we have this new evidence. At a federal level, this needs to be investigated, go through the judicial process and hold everyone that was involved accountable.”

‘Change is inevitable’

The story of Ellis’ descendants drove him through high school at B.C. Rain, where his passion for technology helped him excel in mathematics, science and computer engineering and led him to Auburn University.

At Auburn, Ellis became involved in the Minority Engineering Program, which serves to recruit, retain and reward underrepresented students within all engineering fields. Now known as the Academic Excellence Program, AEP is celebrating its 25th year.

“Auburn engineering provided me with the critical analytical and decision-making skills that put me in an environment to foster my love for continuous learning and co-creation,” he said. “I work in a center that thrives on change, and we’re in a world where change is inevitable.

“Auburn allowed me the opportunity to tap into curiosity, but also the skill set to critically think, understand algorithms, but also network and build lasting relationships. It’s still a place I love today.”

Now closing on his 12th year at Accenture in Atlanta, it’s no wonder the change agent at the community level is a change agent within industry.

“Accenture’s brand expression is ‘Let there be change,’” Ellis said. “It’s very ironic that, knowing my ancestry and looking at the work that I do—taking organizations through change—this is the skillset I’m built for. From where my ancestors started to what they were able to accomplish … that DNA and their spirit lives within me.

“The more history I learn about their resiliency, it motivates and encourages me. It inspires me to be the best version of myself.”

After its Feb. 7 premiere, the documentary will be available to Disney+ and Hulu subscribers.

Related Media

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.