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Black scuba divers explore the wreckage of slave ships and the 'untold American story'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The Middle Passage refers to the stage of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean.

One group is taking a literal deep dive to discover more of that history and raise awareness of the implications for people today.

Jeffrey Brown has more for our Race Matters and arts and culture series, canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Under the sea, a magical world, and, also, if you look hard enough and you know how to scuba dive, a living link to America's tortured past.

Jay Haigler has seen it.

Jay Haigler, Diving With a Purpose: Combining the importance of history and ancestral memory and understanding how that applies today, combining those things with scuba diving, that was a match made in heaven.

Man: Attention, everybody. Attention deck. Make sure that you are close to and with your buddy. We have an hour trip to the dive site.

Jeffrey Brown: Haigler is part of Diving With a Purpose, a group of primarily Black divers who love to go underwater, but also have a larger mission, to find and research sunken ships from the international slave trade.

Jay Haigler: The stories that we tell are important and, more importantly, the untold stories. These stories, the Guerrero, and then many other ships as we got more involved in the search for these ships, became exciting, because most people haven't heard the story, including myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Diving With a Purpose, or DWP, was founded in 2003 by divers Ken Stewart and Brenda Lanzendorf to join an ongoing effort to find the remains of the Guerrero, a ship that wrecked on a reef in the Florida Keys in 1827 after a battle with a British warship trying to enforce anti-slave trade laws.

Of the 561 enslaved Africans on board, 41 drowned.

Tara Roberts, a National Geographic Explorer and storytelling fellow, has written of the slave ships, the people on them, and the divers looking for them, in a cover story for the magazine titled "Hidden No More." That's Jay Haigler in diving gear.

Tara Roberts, National Geographic Explorer: Most people know the name of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims over to the Americas. but who knows the names of the Guerrero or the Henrietta Marie or the Sao Jose Paquete d'Africa?

It's helping bring those lost souls back into memory and honoring them and acknowledging them.

Jeffrey Brown: Roberts' life changed, she says, when she first saw a photograph of DWP divers in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Tara Roberts: Specifically of Black women on this boat in wet suits. I don't know what it was about them. They looked so free and so joyous. They reminded me of superheroes. And I wanted to be like them.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2018, Roberts quit her job with a D.C. nonprofit, and joined the DWP divers.

According to, a database of decades of research by scholars at a consortium of universities, more than 36,000 transatlantic voyages were made between 1501 and 1867, carrying some 12.5 million captured people to ports in the Americas. It's believed 1.8 million lost their lives in the course of the journey known as the Middle Passage.

Around 1,000 shipwrecks have been recorded, yet fewer than 10 have ever been located and studied. Diving With a Purpose is part of the Slave Wrecks Project, an international group of researchers and institutions hosted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, combining maritime archaeology with training and community engagement.

Tara Roberts recalls coming upon an anchor when she dove what are believed to be the wrecks of two Danish ships, Fredericus Quartus and Christianus Quintus, that sank off the coast of Costa Rica in 1710.

Tara Roberts: So, it's very surreal. And then to see this artifact from the 1700s, and to know the history attached to that artifact, this is just an amazing moment, to actually put my eyes on this piece of history.

Jay Haigler: It really is, actually, I would call spiritual.

Jeffrey Brown: Jay Haigler has made more than 1,000 dives at several sites around the world.

Jay Haigler: In going down and searching for the ship, we are like a crime scene investigator, because slavery is the -- literally the biggest crime, global crime, in the history of mankind.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the best-known wrecks is the Clotilda, burned and sunk purposely by its owners in Alabama's Mobile Bay, to hide the evidence of its illegal voyage in 1860.

It's the subject of renewed interest now, with a National Geographic documentary, a book on its history, and another documentary that recently premiered at Sundance focusing on the descendants of the more than 100 enslaved brought on the ship from West Africa.

Indeed, it's the continuing connections these wrecks have to today that motivate those in Diving With a Purpose. Roberts has a new six-part National Geographic podcast, part travelogue, part memoir, titled "Into the Depths" to explore past and present.

Tara Roberts: I wondered if Black divers would notice different details if they would focus on finding artifacts that help us understand the full humanity of the captive Africans.

I hope that people come away knowing some facts that they didn't know before. I hope that they fall in love with these divers, in the same way that I have. I hope people are inspired to actually come to be a part of the work.

Man: I think it was a great year, and you did some outstanding work. With that said, we're going to recognize our new advocates.


Jeffrey Brown: Getting a new generation involved is key, says Jay Haigler. Diving With a Purpose runs programs for young people across the country, as well as in Mozambique and Costa Rica.

Jay Haigler: The hook is diving. Scuba diving is so exciting. And once they start diving, then we give them a purpose. We say, hey, how about learning about history? And then the world is their oyster.

Jeffrey Brown: Is there an understanding that a lot will never be found?

Jay Haigler: Yes, there is.

And the important part of this entire journey is literally telling the untold American story. If we do not find the ship, that doesn't mean we do not tell the story. As long as our young people take the mantle and tell those stories, that's what's important.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, researchers and divers, including members of Diving With a Purpose, continue to search for the Guerrero and other ships.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And let's hope they find them one day. Fascinating.

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