Netflix’s ‘Descendant’ is a compelling documentary that explores the history of Africatown and Lewis Quarters, two communities near Mobile, Alabama. They consist of the descendants of African enslaved people brought to America in 1860 aboard the last known slave ship- Clotilda.
While the vessel was merely a part of oral history and hearsay after it was reportedly burnt and sunk in the Alabama River, all this changed in 2019 when journalist Ben Raines and automotive company owner, Joe Turner, stumbled upon the remains of the fabled ship. Well, let’s find out more about their experiences and present whereabouts, shall we?
Who Are Ben Raines and Joe Turner?
Ben Raines is an award-winning environmental journalist and filmmaker born in Birmingham, Alabama, and left for Oregon at age one. He studied filmmaking at New York University, after which he moved to Mobile, Alabama, to work as an environmental reporter at the Press-Register. Moreover, he has made numerous documentaries, including ‘Alabama Eden,’ ‘America’s Amazon,’ and ‘The Underwater Forest.’
Ben had heard several stories of Clotilda’s wreckage from locals, and since he was keen to discover more, he set out to find the wreckage himself. He was aided by Joe Turner, the owner of East Bay Automotive and Machine Shop Inc., a general automotive repairs shop in Daphne, Alabama. He has been an avid automobile lover since his teenage days and studied automotive functions at the Southwest State Technical College in Mobile. In 1998, Joe started his company, which has become one of the best in the business in Alabama.
In January 2018, a storm due to the North American blizzard caused low tides, resulting in Clotilda’s alleged remains becoming visible in the low Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Ben noticed the Meaher family’s marking in the area- Tim Meaher was the businessman who had brought the ship to the US. Thus, in April 2018, Ben assembled a team with the University of Southern Mississippi; they surveyed the 12 Mile Island section of the river, which had remained untouched in several excursions for the wreckage till then.
Eventually, the team found 11 wrecks, which Ben went to explore with Joe and his crew at the Underwater Works Dive Shop. Furthermore, the latter helped extensively in the search and helped document every procedure. On April 13, 2018, after weeks of elaborate dives and exploration, Ben finally retrieved the first piece of the Clotilda, which proved 160 years of speculation to be true. Later, the Alabama Historical Commission collaborated with SEARCH, Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists specializing in shipwrecks, to verify the journalist’s findings.
After an entire year of private study, the commission announced the remains to the public in May 2019. Ben and Joe’s hard work resulted in a pathbreaking discovery that changed the course of African American history in Alabama. It helped enrich the narrative by giving the residents of Africatown and surrounding areas a part of their legacy. The Clotilda was the last known slave ship that arrived in the US, and the descendants of its survivors were delighted to find that missing piece of their ancestry.
Where is Ben Raines Today?
After being the first to discover the Clotilda shipwreck, Ben Raines received much recognition for his contribution to the study of enslaved people in the US. He wrote the 2022 book ‘The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning,’ which delves into the history of Clotilda’s survivors and his journey finding the ship’s remains.
Besides, Ben has shared his research and findings with numerous prestigious media organizations like National Geographic, The LA Times, and the Smithsonian National Museum. He is actively involved with the Africatown residents and organizations like Clotilda Descendants Association in establishing the Africatown Heritage House Museum. Apart from the book, Ben has directed another documentary called ‘Carnivorous Kingdom,’ which explores carnivorous plants and their qualities. The environmental journalist presently lives with his wife in Fairhope, Alabama.
Where is Joe Turner Today?
Joe Turner played a lesser-known yet pivotal role in helping find Clotilda’s remains and helped Ben and the team navigate the waters with his expert automotive advice and assistance. Not just that, he even chronicled their experiences through his accurate photographs, allowing researchers to correlate the findings with previous material. Joe currently lives in Fairhope with his family and was working full-time with a tree service company as of 2018. He occasionally visits his automotive shop in Daphne to help his son Alex, who has taken charge of the business.
Read More: Where Are Clotilda Descendants Now?