Eric Douglas: Legacy of slavery and discrimination isn't ancient history

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There’s an interesting article in this month’s issue of National Geographic about the sailing ship Clotilda and its evil cargo.

You don’t often get to use the word “evil” and have it mean much, but in this case it’s true. The Clotilda was the last slave ship to bring slaves from Africa. Importing slaves (not slavery itself) had been illegal in the United States since 1807, but the price had gotten so high to buy slaves, the owners decided to make one last trip.

They bought 125 human beings in what is now the nation of Benin in Africa but left 15 behind because they thought the authorities were coming for them. Two slaves died in transit in the horrible conditions below decks, but 108 made it Mobile, Alabama, in 1860.

Obviously, it wasn’t too long until the Civil War broke out, and this group was emancipated alongside the rest of the enslaved people in the United States three years later.

Regardless, they were subjected to awful conditions — not the least of which because they were born in Africa and didn’t speak English or understand the slave system.

The amazing part of the story is what happened after the war. The men and women of the Clotilda didn’t have enough money to return to Africa, so they formed an “Africatown” in Alabama. They supported each other and formed a community.

Africatown thrived until recent years when the local economy in general began to collapse and younger generations moved away. A couple of the original slaves from the Clotilda lived into the 1930s.

Not directly connected, but Ruby Bridges was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. She was 6 years old when she walked into William Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans.

I’ve seen news reels of that event and the anger and the hatred on the faces of the white protesters outside the school, screaming at this child turn my stomach.

Four U.S. marshals escorted her into the school for her safety — every day for a year. On the second day going into the school, a woman threatened to poison her. Later, another woman showed her a black doll inside of a coffin.

The whites outside, fighting against her attending the school, effectively shut down the school for a year. Ruby still attended every day and went to class with the one teacher who agreed to teach her.

It seems like that was all a long time ago, too. Except it wasn’t. This all happened in 1960. That’s a time we like to remember with sock hops and poodle skirts.

Ruby Bridges is now 65 years old. She is 13 years older than I am.

At the beginning of Black History Month, stories like this are an important reminder that it wasn’t really that long ago at all the people were enslaved and tortured solely for the benefit of others.

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit www.booksbyeric.com or contact him at Eric@booksbyeric.com