Conversations about race and racism in the United States abound. Whether via social, corporate, and independent media, or educational, medical, and political institutions, or in the privacy of our homes, Americans are talking about race. Some may say we’re becoming more racially literate. However, one area of the topic that remains taboo, even despite this past summer’s release of The New York Times 1619 Project, is slavery.
When talking about race in many spaces, the legacy of enslaving millions of Africans for nearly two-and-a-half centuries is often avoided. If brought up, even among some of the most “woke,” there is often the prod to “move on from that.” But as this particular history is key to understanding so much of our current reality—from persistent income and education gaps to the increasing wealth divide, and gaping health disparities, we all would benefit by knowing as much about it as we can.
For volunteer divers with Diving With a Purpose, a nonprofit founded in 2003 to train divers to document slave shipwrecks, that journey of understanding starts with what storyteller and diver Tara Roberts calls “the origin story for Africans in the Americas”—known to many as the Middle Passage.
From 1514 to 1866, slave ships traced about 36,000 voyages from Africa to the Americas, severing ancestral ties for millions of Africans, forcefully jumbling myriad ethnic and tribal affiliations, and changing the face of relationships worldwide.
The Washington Post reported that as many as 1,000 of these ships may have ended as wrecks, but only a few, including the Henrietta Marie, the São José, and, last year, the Clotilda, have been conclusively identified.
The Guerrero Project
Diving With a Purpose formed as a result of the search for another vessel, the Guerrero.
The Spanish pirate ship carrying 561 kidnapped Africans is believed to have crashed in the seas of Biscayne National Park off the coast of Florida.
Members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, including Diving With a Purpose founder Ken Stewart, were asked to participate in the 2004 documentary, the Guerrero Project, that explained the dramatic events leading up to the wreck.
Biscayne maritime archeologist, the late Brenda Lanzendorf, also featured in the film, found herself emotionally invested in finding the Guerrero. But, per federal mandate, she needed to identify and document more than 40 other wrecks underwater within the 173,000-acre park, too. As the only diver on staff, Lanzendorf, who died in 2008, needed help.
Lanzendorf and Stewart struck a deal. She would train other Black divers in maritime archaeology techniques, such as mapping shipwrecks, artifact identification and documentation with the intent that they would continue teaching others, explains Erik Denson, Diving With a Purpose board member.
“Our eventual goal was to participate in a search for the Guerrero, to actually find that slave ship… it was just kind of a win-win situation.”
They never got a positive ID on the Guerrero, but in the 15 years since Diving With a Purpose was founded, the nonprofit, which began with only three divers, has trained more than 300 adult and youth divers.
Graduates receive Archaeology Survey Diver certification through the Professional Association of Dive Instructors, a higher-level PADI certification that allows divers to participate in wreck dives as citizen archeologists and positions them for further professional work in maritime archeology.
Diving With a Purpose is also part of the Slave Wrecks Project, an international network of researchers and institutions that includes The George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, and the U.S. National Park Service, and which has allowed the group to coordinate dives in places such as Mozambique and South Africa. The project is hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
“We can go out there and do side-scan sonar, multibeam sonars, and surveys to maybe identify possible targets,” he explains. “[S]ome of these targets may turn out to be nothing. Some of them may turn out to be various shipwrecks but not slave ship wrecks.”
Experts within these partner groups identify broad swaths of ocean where wrecks might be, and then Diving With a Purpose volunteers explore these sites, effectively serving as “boots on the ground” for professional archaeologists, says Denson, who is a chief engineer at NASA.
Once a ship is found, everything from the vessel’s material to nearby objects help researchers identify it. Some clues are obvious. For example, divers found a bell with the ship’s name on the Henrietta Marie, the British slave vessel that sank near Florida in 1700. And, if it’s metal, it’s not a slave ship, Denson says. Objects like cannons and cannonballs indicate the ship’s time period and country of origin. But one particular artifact indicates strong evidence that a wreck is a slave ship: shackles.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, about 10.7 million people were kidnapped and trafficked to the New World. The Guerrero Project estimated that in addition to those who were enslaved, an added 90 million people died during “capture, internment, and the ocean journey.” To put that figure in perspective, that is more than twice the Black population in the U.S. today.
Numbers of this magnitude are too vast to trigger an empathy response, according to psychology professor Paul Slovic, something White people already have a hard time with when it comes to Black folks. And though many may be desensitized to the vast scale of slave trade atrocity, findings, such as the child-sized shackles as described by artist and activist Dinizulu “Gene” Tinnie in the Guerrero Project, help bring it back to human scale.
Uncovering a Dark Part of our History
Diving With a Purpose has inserted a perspective into the diving and archeological fields that had been historically underrepresented—that of the descendants of enslaved Africans. The Association of Black Anthropologists estimates that African Americans make up less than 1% of archaeologists in the U.S. And 3,000 Black divers are in NABS compared to more than 3 million divers nationwide.
“The African-American diver is a rare thing,” says Tristan Cannon, a 19-year-old diver and chemistry major at Tennessee State University. “And the fact that we are fervently looking for these pieces of history that could very well stay buried… is also very important. We are trying our best to make sure that these stories don’t remain lost forever.”
The history of enslaved Africans and their descendants is something that “mainstream archeology does not really concentrate on,” says Denson, who also helped uncover a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in Lake Huron.
But things are starting to change, a possible fortunate byproduct of our racially polarized nation and politics, which Denson believes makes it harder to be “complacent.”
“I think it’s becoming a little bit more, I wouldn’t say popular… but a lot more interest is coming about,” he says. “[I]t’s a dark part of our history. But people are trying to start to recognize that this is our history.”
Ruth Terry is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey, who writes about everything from race to rollerskating.