SCAD students' 'Surviving Clotilda' brings the true story of America's last slave ship to life

(L-R) Kathryn Jamieson, Rachel Taylor and Olivia Grillo walk the red carpet for Day 5 of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.

Students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) used narration and vivid animated imagery to bring to life “Surviving Clotilda”. This animated short film tells the story of the last slave ship to come to shore in America. 

At the 24th SCAD Savannah Film Festival, descendants of Clotilda’s original passengers gathered for a screening of the film directed by Olivia Grillo and Kathryn Jamieson, which tells the story of the Clotilda passengers’ traumatic journey. 

The film was commissioned by Visit Mobile (AL), where just a few miles north of the city, 32 of the original Clotilda passengers founded the historic community of Africatown.

SCAD film and television professor Jennifer Hyde, narrator and SCAD student Rachel Olivia Taylor, Visit Mobile vice president Emily Gonzalez, and Clotilda Descendants Association president Darron Patterson gave a Q&A session after the screening.

“Every time I see this film, it just brings to life how special those people were in the cargo hold of the ship. They were totally underestimated. Remember, black people were never meant to be anything but slaves but these people were nothing to play with. They were resilient,” said Clotilda Descendants Association president Darron Patterson. 

The story starts in 1860 when Timothy Meaher and other affluent slaveholders commissioned a ship called “Clotilda” to make a voyage to West Africa in order to smuggle slaves back to Mobile. This, despite the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 that was enacted March 2, 1807.

“We knew that the story had to be told and we were invited into the Africatown community to work closely with Africatown Collaborative. The city of Mobile knew that it was time, and we were able to get to know SCAD and SCAD professionals and we knew it was time to do not just this film, but another project as well,” said Visit Mobile vice president Emily Gonzalez.

The ship carrying 110 Africans who were stolen from their homes landed in Mobile under cover of night in July, 1860, and after being unloaded, Clotilda was set on fire and sank in order to cover up the crime. 

For over a century the story of the Clotilda was passed down from generation to generation by the descendants of her original passengers.  Over the years the story was questioned as if it might have even been a myth but this was until the Clotilda’s existence was confirmed once her wreckage was uncovered in the Mobile River.

“Most of the African community really believed that this actually happened and every time they were telling their story that this happened, everyone said, show me proof. Where’s the ship and did it really happen? Where’s it in writing and then they found the ship wreckage,” said Patterson.

In January 2021, the Mobile County Commission took a major step and approved more than $1.3 million for an interpretative center and garden. The Africatown Heritage House will house a $250,000 exhibit, funded by the city of Mobile, that will include artifacts from the Clotilda preserved in a water tank. This documentary will be a part of this as well. 

“I’ve made dozens of documentary films, and this film looks nothing like I thought it was going to look at the beginning and in large part because of our producer and directors, Olivia Grillo and Kathryn Jamieson. What it really showed me was a whole an enormous skill set that we had at SCAD that we can put into play, to tell really important stories in ways that are very engaging, emotional, informative because it was challenging from multiple perspectives,” said SCAD film and television professor Jennifer Hyde.

One of those challenges was this film was produced during the pandemic with the various involved groups working remotely using zoom to create this work. 

It was also narrator and SCAD student Rachel Olivia Taylor’s first time working on a documentary-style film but she was excited to tackle the project and learn from the process. She got overwhelmed with emotion though when an audience member asked was it difficult to tell this as a young African-American woman.

Taylor said, “Really difficult, because I know about all of the awful things that black people in general had to endure. Though people want to make history seem so far away, much of it is still recent and we need to acknowledge it instead of sugar coating it and making it easier for people to intake when we had no choice.”

Despite working virtually everyone expressed the diligence and professionalism of the SCAD students and the SCAD team. Patterson evening noting that they approached the project with sincerity. 

SCAD and Visit Mobile expressed that the Africantown community welcomed them in and they became family. 

“We may look different, but we have heart. We have compassion. We love people. We love what we do and we have got to get this through to our kids that we have got to live together. There are people who want to say that you are not equal to me because of the color of your skin. That’s where we’ve got to take this story and make it understood that this is time out of this crap. We are all Americans,” said Patterson.

A new Africatown Heritage House museum is set to open in Spring 2022 to educate visitors about the experience of the Clotilda survivors. People will be able to watch the film at the museum on the river in Mobile, and near the museum will be a boat that will take people up near the Clotilda ship wreckage. There are plans for other tours as well. 

About The Author

Kareem McMichael

Kareem McMichael is a filmmaker, documentarian, writer, and multimedia content creator. The Macon native enjoys entertainment, and sharing with locals and visitors’ stories about Savannah’s art and culture scene. When he is not working, he enjoys relaxing at the beach, grabbing a beverage, hitting a fun art event,...

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