Cudjo Lewis (1835 – 1935) Last full-blooded African to come to America on the Clotilde in 1859 Courtesy: University of South Alabama Archives, Erik Overbey Collection
AfricaTown is the site in Mobile, Alabama, along the Gulf Coast where the last cargo of Africans landed in 1860. Their landing marked the last recorded attempt to import Africans to the United States for the purpose of slavery.
The history of AfricaTown, USA, originated in Ghana, West Africa, near the present city of Tamale in 1859. The tribes of Africa were engaged in civil war, and the prevailing tribes sold the members of the conquered tribes into slavery. The village of the Tarkbar tribe near the city of Tamale was raided by Dahomey warriors, and the survivors of the raid were taken to Whydah, now the People’s Republic of Benin, and put up for sale. The captured tribesmen were sold for $100 each at Whydah. They were taken to the United States on board the schooner Clotilde, under the command of Maine Capt. William Foster. Foster had been hired by Capt. Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipper and shipyard owner, who had built the schooner Clotilde in Mobile in 1856.
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 Meaher and Foster planned the Trans-Atlantic voyage of the Clotilde for the purpose of bringing an illegal cargo of slaves back to Mobile.
By the time the Clotilde arrived in Mobile, federal authorities, having heard about the illegal scheme, were on the lookout for it. 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 Clotilde 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. Cudjoe Lewis was among that group.
In a federal court case in 1861, US v. Byrnes Meaher, Timonthy Meaher, and John Dabey, the three were charged with importing 103 natives of Africa for the purpose of slavery in the United States on the schooner Clotilde. The case was dismissed because the Federal Court could not prove the involvement of Timothy Meaher in this plot, but there was a strong implication that the case was dismissed because of the beginning of the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the original group of intended slaves was 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 140 years after the landing of the Clotilde in Mobile Bay.
Cudjo Lewis (Kazoola), the last living descendant of AfricaTown, left us his account of the war between the tribes in West Africa, the selling of Africans to be brought to Mobile on the Clotilde, and their voyage to AfricaTown.
When the original group of settlers dwindled because due to death, the remaining AfricaTowners would gather on Sundays after church at one of their homes to discuss the group’s welfare. Of the remaining number, Lewis was the best known, perhaps because he lived the longest (d. 1934) and was the most ebullient and talkative of all, giving interviews to the many writers who focused their work on AfricaTown during the early 1900s.
The AfricaTown Community Mobilization Project was formed in February 1997 with the purpose of establishing an AfricaTown Historical District, and encouraging the historical restoration and development of the site.
The Local Legacy project includes 16 pages of text, 11 color photographs, a map of the AfricaTown district, newspaper articles, information on the AfricaTown Mobilization Project, and a videotape, “AfricaTown, USA,” made by a local news station.
Originally submitted by: Sonny Callahan, Representative (1st District).