Question of the Month
Cudjo Lewis: Last African Slave in the U.S.?
Q: Was Cudjo Lewis the last African enslaved in this country?
-- James Cracken, San Diego, California
A: On March 2, 1807, Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa. The law took effect on January 1, 1808. The law stipulated that violators were to be fined $800 (for knowingly buying illegally imported slaves) to $20,000 (for equipping a slave ship) or imprisoned. State legislatures would decide the fates of the illegally imported slaves. The new law, owing to anti-Black sentiments and government inefficiency, was poorly enforced.
Mobile, Alabama holds the unenviable distinction of being the port of entry for the last cargo of slaves kidnapped and brought into this nation. In 1859 the schooner Clotilde (or Clotilda), under the command of William Foster, arrived in Mobile Bay carrying a cargo of Africans, numbering between 110 and 160 slaves. Captain Foster worked for Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipper and shipyard owner, who had built the Clotilde in 1856. Local lore claims that Meaher bet some "Northern gentlemen" that he could violate the 1807 law without getting caught. The Clotilde was a 2-masted schooner, 86 feet long and 23 feet wide, with a copper hull. Meaher learned through word of mouth that West African Tribes were fighting and that the King of Dahomey was willing to trade Africans for $50 each at Whydah, Dahomey. Foster arrived in Whydah on May 15, 1859. He bought the Africans from several different tribes and headed back to Mobile.
By the time the Clotilde arrived, federal authorities had been alerted to the illegal scheme. Captain Foster, fearful of criminal charges, arrived at night, transferred his cargo to a riverboat and burned the Clotilde before sinking it. The Africans were distributed to those having a financial interest in the Clotilde expedition with Meaher retaining 30 of the Africans on a property near Mobile. Cudjo (sometimes Cudjoe) Lewis was among that group.
Mobile, Alabama was in the Deep South and blacks, Africans or native-born people, occupied the bottom rung in a racial hierarchy. The Africans brought on the Clotilde could not be legally enslaved; however, they were treated as chattel. Cudjo and 30 others were "illegally" the property of Meaher. The American Civil War ended six years after the illegal enslavement of the Africans brought on the Clotilde. They were freed. The Africans settled in Plateau, Alabama, a poor rural community near Mobile. They called their community Africatown. They adopted their own rules and leaders, and "having been Christianized before their emancipation" they established the African Church. They worked hard. The women used their agricultural skills to raise crops and sell them. Men worked in mills for $1 a day; in time using the money to purchase the land. When possible, they avoided whites.
Cudjo Lewis (African name, Kazoola) was the last survivor of the Clotilde. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, the famous African American writer, interviewed Lewis for the Journal of Negro History. He was often interviewed by reporters. He told stories about the civil wars in West Africa and the plight of the losers: being sold into slavery. That is what happened to him and the others on the Clotilde. They were West African; they were the Tarkar people. Cudjo recounted how he was captured by warriors from neighboring Dahomey and taken to Whydah and imprisoned in a slave compound. He was sold by the King of Dahomey to William Foster and then forcibly transported to the United States. The Tarkar asked to be repatriated, were denied, and therefore, tried to recreate their homeland in Mobile. They spoke their native language, used African gardening and cooking techniques, did everything they could to retain their West African culture.
For many years, Cudjo Lewis served as a spokesman for the Tarkar people living in Africatown. He was visited by many prominent blacks, including Booker T. Washington. Cudjo Lewis eventually came to believe that the Africans had to adopt their new country, even though their white countrymen often treated them brutally. There is a church in Africatown called Union Baptist and nearby is the Cudjo Lewis Memorial Statue. In 1997 there was a campaign to have the community declared a historical site. Cudjo Lewis died in 1935 at the age of 114. He may not have been the last African enslaved in the United States, but he was the last survivor of the last known ship to bring Africans as slave cargo into this country. Archaeological searches for the Clotilda continue.
July 2005 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum