The Truth can never stay buried, and the river of Time always reveals its secrets.
In 1859, with the Civil War looming on the horizon, a shipbuilder from Mobile, Alabama bet some of his northern investors that he could smuggle slaves into the United States, in defiance of the 1807 Slave Importation Prohibition Act. He ordered one of his captains to travel to Africa and buy over 100 slaves from the King of Dahomey (Benin). The captain set sail on an 86-foot two-masted schooner ironically named Clotilda (in honor of Saint Clothilde, queen of the Franks, who was venerated in 544 for spreading Christian mercy). He accomplished his mission, returned to Mobile, transferred his human cargo to a riverboat, and burned the Clotilda before federal authorities could arrive.
The unfortunate captives of the Clotilda were the last known shipment of slaves to be brought into the United States. Approximately thirty of them worked together along the river, until they were freed at the end of the war. They then relocated to a place called Magazine Point, where they created a community called Africatown and kept a decidedly low profile away from their vengeful white neighbors.
In 1931, famed African-American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston – author of Their Eyes Were Watching God – visited Africatown in search of traditional stories and songs. There she interviewed the last remaining known survivor of the Clotilda, a 90-year-old man who had been named Kazoola in his youth in Africa, was renamed Cudjo by his white captors, and after gaining his freedom took the last name Lewis. Hurston recorded their interview on paper and on film, making Cudjo Kazoola Lewis the only African-born slave of whom we have a moving image.
The full interview is not apparently available online, but you can see a video image of Cudjo at the beginning of the following clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtPrN-zYZc4
In January 2018, a monster storm brought record cold to the Northeast and century-low tides to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. A local reporter who covers the environment was walking along the exposed shoreline when he came upon the muddy remains of a ship. It looked to be about 86 feet long, and was apparently burned before its hull sank into the mud. Researchers descended on the site, and started digging. They have preliminarily concluded that they have found the Clotilda, the last known slave ship.
Meanwhile, up in a New York, a different sort of digging is going on. HarperCollins is preparing a formerly unpublished work by Zora Neale Hurston, based on her interview in Africatown, in which she tells the true story of an African man who was captured, thrown into a slave enclosure called a baracoon, shipped in bonds to America, endured slavery, and lived long enough to tell the tale.
Said the publisher, the book, “Offers insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white. This poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.”
Baracoon, the true story of Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, last known survivor of the African slave trade, comes to light in May.