by Henry Willett
In front of the Union Missionary Baptist Church, in the Magazine/Plateau community about three miles north of Mobile, there is a bust of Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, the last survivor of a voyage on the slave ship, Clotilda, from the west coast of Africa in 1860. The monument is an enduring symbol of the community's pride in its African history and heritage, and is the focal point for annual celebrations of that heritage. Beneath the bust is a steel shaft sunk 100 feet into the earth, symbolizing the 100 years that this group of African Americans had inhabited Mobile County soil when the monument was dedicated in 1959.
Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis was born around 1840, a member of the Tarkbar tribe, which inhabited the interior region of the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Africa.
The Tarkbars were an agricultural people raising hogs, goats, sheep, chickens and cows. They planted beans and yams, and gathered bananas and pineapples. Their main trade item was the oil from palm trees, which was traded to other tribes, eventually reaching the coast for export abroad. In the late 1850s, West Africa was at war with itself. Defeated tribes were often sold into slavery. In November of 1858, the Mobile Register noted, "The King of Dahomey was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece." And as secessionist fever was spreading through Alabama in the 1850s, there was much talk of reopening the African slave trade, which had been outlawed since 1808. It was in this setting that wealthy Mobile shipper Timothy Meaher and shipyard owner William Foster planned the Trans-Atlantic voyage of the Clotilda for the purpose of bringing an illegal cargo of slaves back to Mobile. Clotilda set sail from Mobile on March 4, 1860, arriving at the port of Whydah on the west coast of Africa on May 15.
Five weeks earlier, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis and dozens of fellow tribesmen had been captured by Dahomean warriors and marched to the port of Whydah where Lewis and 114 others were sold to Captain Foster for one hundred dollars apiece.
By the time they arrived in Mobile, federal authorities, having heard about the scheme, were on the lookout for the Clotilda. Captain Foster entered Mobile Harbor on the night of July 9, 1860. He transferred his slave cargo to a riverboat and sent them up into the canebrake to hide them. He then burned his schooner and sunk it.
The Africans were distributed to those having an interest in the Clotilda expedition, with 32 settling on the Meaher property at Magazine Point, three miles north of Mobile. This formed the nucleus of what came to be known, and still is known, as Africatown. Lewis was among that group. After the Civil War, they were joined by a number of their fellow tribesmen. For decades they continued speaking their native tongue, had disputes arbitrated by their tribal chieftain, Charlie Poteete, and had their illnesses treated by the African doctor, Jabez. Up until World War II, Africatown remained a rather distinct community in Mobile County.
Africatown is unique in that it represents a group of Africans who were forcefully removed from their homeland, sold into slavery, and then formed their own, largely self-governing community, all the while maintaining a strong sense of African cultural heritage. This sense of heritage and sense of community continues to thrive today, more than 130 years after the landing of the Clotilda in Mobile Bay.
Alabama Folkways welcomes readers' comments. Write: Folkways, Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 North Hull Street, Montgomery, AL 36104.