The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It Just Surfaced


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source: History

Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the U.S. (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

Roughly 60 years after the abolition ofslavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston made an incredible connection: She located the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States.

Hurston, a known figure of theHarlem Renaissancewho would later write the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, conducted interviews with the survivor but struggled to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they are only now being released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”that comes out on May 8, 2018.

Author Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960). (Credit: Corbis/Getty Images)

Hurston’s book tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was born in what is now the West African country of Benin. Originally named Kossula, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe captured him and took him to the coast. There, he and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States.

The Clotilda brought its captives to Alabama in 1860, just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Even though slavery was legal at that time in the U.S., the international slave trade was not, and hadn’t been for over 50 years. Along with many European nations, the U.S. had outlawed the practicein 1807, but Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.

To avoid detection, Lewis’ captors snuck him and the other survivors into Alabama at night and made them hide in a swamp for several days. To hide the evidence of their crime, the 86-foot sailboat was then set a blaze on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta(its remains may have been uncovered in January 2018).

Most poignantly, Lewis’ narrative provides a first-hand account of the disorienting trauma of slavery. After being abducted from his home, Lewis was forced onto a ship with strangers. The abductees spent several months together during the treacherous passage to the United States, but were then separated in Alabama to go to different plantations.

A marker to commemorate Cudjo Lewis, considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, in Mobile, Alabama. (Credit: Womump/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother,” Lewis told Hurston. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”

Lewis also describes what it was like to arrive on a plantation where no one spoke his language, and could explain to him where he was or what was going on. “We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis,” he told Hurston. “Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.”

As for the Civil War, Lewis said he wasn’t aware of it when it first started. But part-way through, he began to hear that the North had started a war to free enslaved people like him. A few days after Confederate GeneralRobert E. Leesurrendered in April 1865, Lewis says that a group of Union soldiers stopped by a boat on which he and other enslaved people were working and told them they were free.

Cudjo Lewis at home. (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

Lewis expected to receive compensation for being kidnapped and forced into slavery, and was angry to discover that emancipation didn’t come with the promise of “forty acres and a mule,” or any other kind of reparations. Frustrated by the refusal of the government to provide him with land to live on after stealing him away from his homeland, he and a group of 31 other free people saved up money to buy land near the state capital of Mobile, which they called Africatown.

Hurston’s use of vernacular dialogue in both her novels and her anthropological interviews was often controversial, as some black American thinkers at the time argued that this played to black caricatures in the minds of white people. Hurston disagreed, and refused to change Lewis’ dialect—which was one of the reasons a publisher turned her manuscript down back in the 1930s.

Many decades later, her principled stance means that modern readers will get to hear Lewis’ story the way that he told it.


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Possible discovery of slave ship Clotilda creates high hopes for Africatown supporters

January 23, 2018

Lawrence Specker | Africatown
Africatown A view of the Old Plateau Cemetery, also known as the Africatown Graveyard, on Jan. 23, 2018. The cemetery is one of few descrete sites that reflect the unique history of the Africatown community in Mobile, Ala.

2 / 12 Lawrence Specker |
Lorna Gail Woods visit family plots in the Africatown Graveyard, including one for her great-great grandfather Joe Lewis. Lewis was the son of Charles Lewis, one of the founders of the Africatown community.

5 / 12. Lawrence Specker |
The Africatown graveyard contains a memorial to Cudjoe (or Cudjo) Lewis, also known as Kazoola, a pillar of the early Africatown community who was vital in communicating its story to outsiders.

6 / 12 Lawrence Specker
The monument identifies Lewis as the last survivor of the captives carried from Africa by the Clotilda.he Monument

By Lawrence Specker

In 1860 the Clotilda brought Lorna Gail Woods' great-great-great grandfather to the South as a slave. She says the possible discovery of the vessel's wreckage would validate what the last known slaves brought from Africa to America didn't lose on that voyage.

Woods was among many reacting Tuesday to the revelation that the burned and buried ruin of the Clotilda might have been found by reporter Ben Raines.

The wreck hasn't yet been confirmed as the infamous vessel believed to have brought the last known group of Africans to slavery in the South. But experts who've had a preliminary look at it say that it is in the area where the Clotilda was expected to rest, a few miles north of Mobile; has some measurements that appear to match; was built in the Clotilda's era; and apparently was burned, which also fits the known account of the boat.

Wreck found by reporter may be last American slave ship, archaeologists say

"This would be a story of world historical significance, if this is the Clotilda," said John Sledge, a senior historian with Mobile Historical Commission.

The Clotilda is part of a unique story. The people who were its cargo spent a few years in slavery. Then, a few miles outside Mobile, many of them gathered in a community where they could make a new life for themselves, preserving their culture and identities as they adapted to a free life in a strange world. Initially known as African Town, it is today called Africatown.

In addition to those who can trace their family history back to the Clotilda, Africatown has other advocates who've worked over the years to preserve and publicize its story. The possibility that a pivotal piece of evidence might have been found made waves everywhere from the Mobile City Council to Harvard University.

Woods discussed it during a visit to the historic Africatown Graveyard, one of the landmarks of the Plateau/Africatown community, where she stood near the grave of Joe Lewis. Born in 1869, Lewis was the son of Charlie Lewis, a Clotilda passenger and one of Africatown's founders. He died a few years after Woods was born in 1948.

"He held me as a baby," she said. "Maybe that's how I got so in love with the history, knowing that my great-great-grandaddy held me in his arms before he died."

"He told us about this history as good as he could," she said. "Because him being a second-generation of Charlie Lewis, one of the ones that came on the Clotilda, he felt it needed to be told."

What Charlie Lewis and others didn't give up on the Clotilda, or after their enslavement, she said, was their determination to preserve their identity and to pass along their story.

Over the decades, Woods said, some had made invaluable efforts to document the Africatown experience, notably folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. But in the era of segregation, it was hard to find an audience. Even in more recent times, there have been those who've questioned whether the voyage of the Clotilda ever happened.

"We always knew, out in Plateau, this history," Woods said. "We wasn't able to tell it because nobody would listen."

The Plateau area was inhabited before Africatown came to be, and the connections are complex. Africatown has ardent supporters who are not themselves descendants of Clotilda captives.

Attorney Karlos Finley, a part time judge for the city of Mobile and the president of the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, said his personal connection to Africatown goes back to the early 1910s, when his grandfather was exiled from Evergreen, Ala.

"He was run out of Evergreen for healing a white woman of the flu," Finley said. He said townspeople supposed that if he healed the woman's ailments, he must have touched her. Finley said the woman's husband came to get him and put him on the train to Mobile, where he sought refuge, landing in Africatown, continuing to practice medicine.

In Africatown, he came into contact with community founder Cudjo "Kazoola" Lewis and other historic Africatown families.

Finley's sister Dora became notable in the Mobile community for recalling the story of Plateau, Africatown and the Clotilda.

The U.S. had already banned the slave trade a half century before the Clotilda set sail to Africa, so it was an illegal mission. That causes some to question the terminology commonly applied to the captives aboard her.

"These people were never really 'slaves,' They were humans trafficked and captured and brought here illegally," Finley says. "Their whole thing was, they wanted to get back to their homeland - to Dahomey."

He's far from the only one to make that distinction. Those aboard the Clotilda might have been forced to spend time enslaved, they say, but they weren't beaten by it.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose many academic, literary and filmmaking credits include his role as the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has a different take. Their status as slaves had been sealed even before they were taken aboard the Clotilda in present-day Benin, he said.

"Those people were already enslaved in Dahomey," Gates said. "These white guys didn't throw nets on these people." They bought them from willing sellers, he said.
Gates doesn't downplay the potential importance of finding the Clotilda, however.

"It's certainly exciting and it's certainly a mission worth embarking on," he said Tuesday, expressing hope that a preservation campaign would be funded. "It would be such a fitting gesture and symbol of closure to the slave trade."

Others visiting the Africatown Graveyard on Tuesday included Cleon Jones - a former Major League Baseball player who's now the president of the Africatown Community Development Organization - and his wife, Angela.

"My stake is my people -- parents, grandparents, great-grandparents -- lived in this community and were some of the pioneers of this community," Cleon Jones said. "As a matter of fact they were in this community when the Clotilda landed."

He grew up with descendants, he said. He went to school with them, he broke bread with them, he maintains friendships with them. He's a witness, he said, to the way the ship's human cargo "survived and mingled and strived and made a difference in this community and in Mobile County as a whole."

Where the Clotilda's story ended, Africatown's began

The story of Africatown is not the story of the Clotilda. But the possible rediscovery of the slave ship's wreckage is a reminder that while the ship had no future after its fateful 1859 voyage, those imprisoned aboard it did.

Finding the ship, he said, would generate energy and excitement that would help drive the long-held dream of elevating Plateau and Africatown from the blight and neglect the area has endured for so long.

"Times such as these we need this kind of inspiration to help us move forward."

He added that it's not about settling an old grudge with the descendants of Timothy Meaher and the others responsible for the Clotilda's voyage.

"We're in a healing mode now," he said. "We don't look at the Clotilda now as something that was perpetrated on us by the Meaher family. We look at it as a gift, now, because so much good came out of something so terrible. It's time for healing, and it's time to move on to make sure that all these people went through was not in vain."

"They were free people," said Angela Jones. "They were enslaved." The apparent contradiction comes from a subtle distinction, almost like the difference between being broke and being poor. The Clotilda captives went through a period of subjugation, but weren't defined by it.

"And now today what it has done because of the history, it has united us," she said. "You know, the Meaher family is a big part of what we are doing today. We thank God for them."

"What I would like to see is what we've been working on for years, is that the true essence of Africatown has really not been developed and given to the rest of the world," said Cleon Jones. "There's been a lot of naysayers and doubters."

"It should be world renowned," he said. "That's what we've tried to do as a community, is to present a platform that says: This is real. This is how it happened. This is why it happened. And we're better as a community once we get all the details and the facts and we're able to move on."

"Whether the ship they've found is the Clotilda or not, no matter what ship that is, this is a history that needs to be known," said Finley. "Not only have we endured, we have strived, we have survived. To think that these are people who were brought over here, in chains ... and their descendants have continued to endure. Their descendants are doctors and lawyers and judges. Children need to hear this story to know that it is true that they can be whatever it is they want to be in life, no matter what circumstance they are born into. And that education is the 'grand equalizer.'"

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Manzie and Councilman Fred Richardson called for the city's administration assign someone to work with an archeological team and to secure the site where the ship was found.

"Hopefully we found this jewel and we can do what we can to protect it and honorably display it and the Africatown community can become the tourism destination it deserves to become," said Manzie.

"It would mean a lot to this city and to the citizens who live near there," said Richardson.

Even the suggestion that the Clotilda has been found raises hopes near and far. From Harvard, Gates said the ship illustrates something much bigger that one cargo. It's a reminder of a multi-national human trafficking trade that reduced more than 12 million Africans to property to be exported and exploited as their owners saw fit.

While many people are well aware of slavery's horrors, he said, "we tend to forget about the slave trade ... This would be a great way to restart a great conversation about not only slavery, but the slave trade."

Some of Africatown's advocates would like to establish a welcome center and museum. There once was a small welcome center across from the graveyard, but now only a foundation remains, and a couple of busts vandalized years ago.

Woods dreams of something bigger and broader, something that existed not all that long ago. Even in her childhood, the Africatown legacy of self-sufficiency lingered.

As I grew up we had stores in the area, we had cleaners, barberships, grocery stores," she said. "We don't have any of that now."

For people who've heard the story and want to see Africatown, she said, there's little to latch onto. The graveyard, the equally historic Union Missionary Baptist Church - and neighborhoods beset by poverty, blight and industrial encroachment. "It's nothing to see, it's nothing to do," she said.

Something gained by her great-great-grandfather at the cost of great effort has been lost and needs to be found again, she said.

Woods said that Joe Lewis worked in a sawmill for the Meaher family, on the other side of Three Mile Creek. He built up some money, she said, but just as importantly, he became literate and learned how to run a business. He built and ran a store. She thinks the support of the Meahers helped him along the way. "He became a businessman," she said, and a treasurer for the church.

It's a lot to hope for. So she's happy for any good omen, and the possible rediscovery of the Clotilda is one.

"Even though the journey is still going, the journey gets shorter and shorter each time they find something that compels us to keep going about that ship," she said. "It makes me happy in my heart."

"I have children and grandchildren and I'm trying to make sure they never forget this history," she said. "Because it was rich." reporters Jared Boyd and John Sharp contributed to this story. It was updated at 5:05 p.m. Thursday to fix an incorrect date.


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Super Moderator
Alabama Historical Commission to examine whether vessel is the Clotilda

Photo: Ben Raines,
Published: February 2, 2018 at 4:55 PM CST
Updated: February 2, 2018 at 4:57 PM CST

The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) is currently coordinating with local, state, and national agencies concerning the deployment of an investigation into a shipwreck discovered in January 2018 in the Mobile area. In a press release, the agency said, "it is our agency’s duty to uphold the state law that manages and protects shipwrecks and archaeological sites in Alabama waters. After receiving the necessary permits and finalizing a research design, AHC will examine whether the vessel is, in fact, the Clotilda." “The AHC staff is hard at work preparing our agency for this investigation,” said Lisa D. Jones, Executive Director of the Alabama Historical Commission. “During this process we look forward to engaging with the local community.” The archaeological process will occur in phases with Phase I beginning as early as this month. Weekly updates will be available on the AHC website at and on social media.

All content © 2018, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.


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Alabama Historians: The Last Known Slave Ship Has Been Found

A family tree listing the descendants of Charlie Lewis, who was brought from Africa to the United States on the slave ship Clotilda. The captain burned the ship to conceal evidence of the illegal smuggling trip.CreditJulie Bennett/Associated Press

The New York Times

By Richard Fausset
May 23, 2019

Over the years, the hunt for the remains of the last ship known to have brought enslaved people into the United States has been fraught with a mix of tumult and hope.

There was a discovery last year of wreckage that, after much excitement and international headlines, was determined a false alarm. Hopes were raised, then dashed, then raised again — not only among marine archaeologists, but also the descendants of the ship’s human cargo, many of whom make their homes in a tiny South Alabama community called Africatown.

Then, on Wednesday, came an announcement from the Alabama Historical Commission: Another shipwreck, one of many marooned under a muddy stretch of the Mobile River, was almost certainly the Clotilda, a wooden vessel of horrors that had carried 110 Africans to the United States in 1860, more than a half-century after the importation of slaves was declared illegal.

The find, historians said, revives a story of unspeakable cruelty, but also the story of a people who somehow survived this indignity and many others like it.

The last voyage of the Clotilda, from Benin, Africa, to Mobile Bay, Ala., “represented one of the darkest eras of modern history,” Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, the commission’s executive director, said in a statement.

“This new discovery brings the tragedy of slavery into focus while witnessing the triumph and resilience of the human spirit in overcoming the horrific crime that led to the establishment of Africatown,” she continued.

The discovery was aided by input from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society and Slave Wrecks Project, a multinational group researching the slave trade, and comes at a moment when civil rights museums have opened across the South. The African-American experience is also finding powerful new expression in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington in 2016.

But the news is likely to resonate most forcefully in Africatown, a working-class community of about 2,000 people north of downtown Mobile. It was founded by people who had been transported to Alabama in the Clotilda’s hull, and it was a place where African languages were spoken for decades.


Many survivors of Clotilda’s voyage to Alabama are buried in Africatown, a working-class community of about 2,000 people north of downtown Mobile.CreditJulie Bennett/Associated Press
More recently, the area was hit hard by paper mill closures, but there is a plan to build a welcome center and museum, largely funded by money from a settlement with the oil giant BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Although it was not clear Wednesday whether any of the wreckage can be restored, Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the area, said he hoped that the ship, or parts of it, would be prominently displayed in Africatown.

“We are incredibly proud as a people and as a community that this link to our history has finally been discovered, and uncovered, and hopefully will be fully appreciated,” Mr. Manzie said Wednesday evening. His dream, he said, was “to restore it to the degree that’s possible and to truly tell this unique American story, this unique Mobile story, in a grand fashion.”

After the Clotilda’s arrival in the United States, its captain, William Foster, burned the ship in an effort to conceal evidence of the illegal smuggling trip. The Africans aboard were distributed to slave owners, according to the Alabama Historical Commission.

After the Civil War, some of the ship’s survivors gathered in hopes of returning to Africa, but they were unable to do so. Instead, they founded Africatown.

Stories of the ship and its survivors were passed down from generation to generation, although doubts also lingered given the lack of physical proof.

That changed — or so it seemed — in January 2018, when Ben Raines, a writer and documentarian who was then a reporter for, published an article in which he said he had found the remains of a ship that appeared to be the Clotilda.

But that March, experts determined that the ship he had found was too big to be the Clotilda. The stories that followed were not so kind. “I was devastated,” said Mr. Raines, the son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times. “I was sort of this journalistic laughingstock.”

The younger Mr. Raines persisted, sure that he was on to something. He said he convinced researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi to bring a crew to the area to survey for more shipwrecks. They found many. One initially seemed like a big log pile.


Speculation that the remains of the Clotilda were found in the Mobile River in early 2018 was shown to be incorrect. But the discovery convinced researchers to look for more shipwrecks in the area.CreditBen Raines/, via Associated Press
Then Mr. Raines discovered a piece of lumber with square nails in it — a telltale sign, he said, of 19th-century construction.

“Guys, we just found a ship from the 1850s,” he recalled saying at the time.

The experts returned, led by James Delgado, an authority in maritime archaeology. A painstaking act of detective work followed, involving hunts for archived documents, more dives, X-ray fluorescence tests and comparisons of building materials, dimensions and stories.

“There is nothing definitive in terms of a name on a piece of wood or a bell, so what we had to rely on is a series of pieces of evidence that together would lead you to a conclusion,” Dr. Delgado said Wednesday.

The pieces started to fall into place. Insurance records said the ship had white oak framing and planking of northern yellow pine. Those materials were found underwater.

The ship was listed as 86 feet long by 23 feet wide with a 6-foot-11-inch depth of hold. Those, too, matched the dimensions of the wreck.

Among other things, the researchers found “deformed, carbonized rounded pieces of wood that come from an intense fire,” Dr. Delgado said. “We brought in a forensic fire investigator. It was consistent with a fire that had burned for a while.”

Many other leads checked out. And though confirmation with complete certainty is impossible, Dr. Delgado said he believes they have come close. His team wrote a report and sent it to six scientists for a peer review.

“All of them, to a one,” he said, “concluded that this was likely Clotilda.”

Now the focus will turn to protecting the ship, and deciding whether it can somehow be displayed. More archaeological work is also likely, potentially revealing additional elements of the long-submerged story.

For the moment, Mr. Raines said, he is feeling a good dose of vindication, and joy for Africatown.

“This,” he said, “tells America their story.”



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It's been 400 years since the first enslaved Africans set foot in present day America. In this short film, meet a group of vibrant scuba divers determined to find, document and positively identify slave shipwrecks. In the process, they're also discovering deep connections to their ancestry. These Divers Search For Slave Shipwrecks and Discover Their Ancestors | National Geographic



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Wow I have not read all this yet but that brother has seen some serious changes. We are witnessing fast changes ourselves in the area of technology advances for a white reality.