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*The birth of Cudjo Lewis, c 1840, is celebrated on this date. He was a Black Laborer, Historian, and one of the last known African survivors of the Middle Passage, the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States.
He was born Oluale Kossola in Benin to Oluale Kossola and his second wife Fondlolu. He was the second of four children and had 12 stepsiblings. He was a member of the Yoruba people, the Isha (a Yoruba sub-group), whose traditional home is in the Banté region of eastern Benin. Though born into a modest family, his grandfather was an officer of the village's King.
Kossola and his siblings had a happy and active childhood. At 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, use a bow & arrow, spear, and defend his village, surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into oro, a secret Yoruba male society whose role is to police and control society. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a young girl and, at his father's urging, underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married.
In April 1860, amid Kossola's training, Ghezo, the King of Dahomey, and his army attacked the town, killed the king and many people, and took the rest of the townspeople prisoner. Kossola and his companions were marched to Abomey, Dahomey's capital, then on to Ouidah on the coast, where they were held for weeks in a slave pen known as a barracoon (a prison where captives were held before being sent across the Atlantic). Then he and 109 others from various regions of Benin and Nigeria boarded the slave ship Clotilda, captained by Mobile, Alabama shipbuilder William Foster and embarked on the Middle Passage. During his 45 days on the ship, a naked Kossola suffered from thirst and humiliation.
In Alabama, he was enslaved by James Meaher, a wealthy ship captain and brother of Timothy Meaher, who had organized the slave transaction. During his enslavement, he and many of the other Clotilda captives were located at an area north of Mobile known as Magazine Point, the Plateau, or "Meaher's hammock," where the Meahers owned a mill and a shipyard. Although only three miles from the town of Mobile, it was isolated, separated from the city by a swamp and a forest, and easily accessible only by water. James Meaher could not pronounce his name, so Kossola told his new owner to call him Cudjo, a name given by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa to boys born on Monday. During his five years of enslavement, Cudjo worked on a steamship and lived with other slaves under Meaher's house, which was built high above the ground.
After the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War, the Clotilda captives tried to raise money to return to their homeland. The men worked in lumber mills, and the women raised and sold produce, but these occupations did not allow them to raise enough money. After realizing they would not be able to return to Africa, the group deputized Lewis to ask Timothy Meaher for a land grant. When he refused, the community members continued to raise money and began to purchase land around Magazine Point. On September 30, 1872, Lewis bought about two acres of land in the Plateau area for $100.00 and named it Africatown.
Africatown developed as a self-contained community. The citizens appointed leaders to enforce communal norms derived from their shared African background, and developed institutions, including a church, a school, and a cemetery. Sylviane A. Diouf, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, contributed to this article and explains that Africatown was unique because it was a "black town," inhabited exclusively by people of African ancestry and an enclave of people born in another country. She wrote, "Black towns were safe havens from racism, but African Town was a refuge from Americans." Writing in 1914, Emma Langdon Roche noted that the surviving founders of Africatown preferred to speak in their language among themselves. She described the English of adults as "very broken and not always intelligible even to those who have lived among them for many years." However, the residents also adopted some American customs, including Christianity. Lewis converted in 1869, joining a Baptist church.
Regarding emancipation, American-born former slaves became citizens upon the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in July 1868; this change in status did not apply to the members of the Clotilda group, who were foreign-born. Cudjo Kazoola Lewis became a naturalized American citizen on October 24, 1868. Lewis utilized the American legal system in 1902 after his injury in the buggy-train collision. After the Louisville and Nashville Railroad refused to pay damages, he hired an attorney, sued the railroad, and won a significant settlement of $650.00. The award was overturned on appeal.
After Reconstruction and the first quarter of the 20th century, Lewis began to serve as a resource for scholars and other writers, sharing the history of the Clotilda Africans and traditional stories and tales. Emma Langdon Roche, a Mobile-based writer and artist, interviewed Lewis and the other survivors for her 1914 book Historic Sketches of the South. She described their capture in Africa, enslavement, and lives in Africatown. They requested that she use their African names in her work in the hope that it might reach their homeland "where some might remember them." By 1925, Lewis was the last African survivor of the Clotilda; educator and folklorist Arthur Huff Fauset of Philadelphia interviewed him. In 1927 Fauset published two of Lewis' animal tales, "T'appin's magic dipper and whip" and "T'appin fooled by Billy Goat's eyes," and "Lion Hunt," his autobiographical account about hunting in Africa, in the Journal of American Folklore.
In 1927, Lewis was interviewed by the archeologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The next year she published an article, "Cudjoe's Own Story of the Last African Slaver" (1928). According to her biographer Robert E. Hemenway, this piece largely plagiarized Emma Roche's work, although Hurston added information about daily life in Lewis's home village of Banté. In 1928 Hurston returned with additional resources; she conducted more interviews, took photographs, and recorded the only known film footage of an African who had been trafficked to the United States through the slave trade.
Based on this material, she wrote a manuscript, Barracoon, which Hemenway described as "a highly dramatic, semi-fictionalized narrative intended for the popular reader."After this round of interviews, Hurston's literary patron, philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, learned of Lewis and began to send him money for his support. Journalists also interviewed Lewis for local and national publications. Hurston's book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo was published on May 8, 2018.
Cudjo Lewis died July 17, 1935, and is buried at the Plateau Cemetery in Africatown. Since his death, his significance as the last survivor of the Clotilda and the written record created by his interviewers have made him a public figure of American history and the community.
Hurston, Zora Neale.
Barracoon. Unpublished typescripts and hand-written draft, 1931
Alain Locke Collection, Manuscript Department
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
Africatown image: GraveyardWalker (Amy Walker)