Legendary Novelist and the Last African Slave Erupts From the Past in Newly Released Book
Late literary giant Zora Neale Hurston was known for penning thought-provoking, eminent novels that will forever be embedded in the fabric of American literature. Although she passed away over five decades ago, her collection of published work has expanded with the posthumous release of a new book in this month.
The book, “Barracoon,”is a non-fiction anthropological piece that gives readers a lens into the story of Cudjo Lewis; the last known person to survive the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, the news outlet writes.
Nearly 90 years ago, Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, and listened to Lewis—who was in his early 90s—recount his heart-wrenching experiences. Hurston went back and forth to Plateau over the course of four years to collect all of the details for the book. During her visits, Lewis shared memories about his upbringing in Africa, dark details about being captured, and his voyage to America on the Clotilde ship. He also candidly spoke to Hurston about the perils of being an enslaved man in this country and how his life changed following the Civil War.
After gaining his freedom, Lewis and other ex-slaves cultivated a community in Alabama which was later landmarked and recognized as Africatown Historic District, still located outside Mobile. Lewis was also featured in a short film created by Hurston in 1928; making him the only former slave that was born in Africa to be featured on a movie reel.
Harper Collins described the book as a piece that “brilliantly illuminates the tragedy of slavery and one life forever defined by it” and “an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.” Although Lewis’ accounts capture what took place in our country centuries ago, Barracoon holds relevance in this day and age as for race and the origins of racial issues have been pushed to the forefront of a national conversation. It also gives readers the opportunity to experience a different writing style from Hurston as many of her renowned novels—including “Their Eyes Were Watching God”—were fictional pieces.
Cudjo Lewis (African name, Kazoola) 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 94 or 95. 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.
Even now, most Americans don’t know that the last shipload of African slaves arrived in Mobile, Alabama on July 8, 1860, a mere six months before Alabama seceded from the Union, leading to the start of the Civil War. Or that four years later those same Africans, still unable to speak much English, were set free. In the turmoil and upheaval of Reconstruction, they established a community, which they called African Town, on the banks of the Mobile River, and they thrived.
Nevertheless, in Mobile Alabama, Cudjoe Lewis and Abacha were among the last group of Africans forcibly transported to the United States. Originally from present-day Benin and Nigeria, 110 men, women, and children disembarked in Mobile, Alabama, from the Clotilda in 1860. After Emancipation, they eventually founded their own town, Africatown, where they were visited by (among many others) Booker T. Washington and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The last survivor, Cudjo Lewis, died in 1935. The descendants of the Clotilda Africans still live in Africa town.