At age 19, Oluale Kossola was preparing for marriage in his native West African village when he was captured by warriors from a rival tribe and sold into slavery.
It was 1860 — a half-century after the U.S. had outlawed “international trafficking of African peoples.” But a wealthy Alabama ship operator and slaveholder named Timothy Meaher wanted to prove that he could still smuggle kidnapped Africans into the country and organized an expedition to do just that. Kossola was among more than 100 Africans captured and detained for weeks in a barracoon, or holding pen, in what is now Benin. Some 110 of them were put on the Clotilda to endure a harrowing six-week passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The ship was burned upon arrival in Alabama to hide evidence of its illegal cargo. The Africans were taken to Plateau, just north of Mobile, and Kossola became Cudjo Lewis. He lived in slavery for five years.
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As the nation this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of 20 Africans in Virginia in 1619, Lewis’ story is of particular importance. It offers a firsthand account of the slave trade from the perspective of an enslaved person, the uncomfortable fact of Africans enslaving other Africans, and the dehumanizing treatment blacks suffered on U.S. soil.
“They were on the ship for 70 days, and they were in the hold for 13 days before they even got a chance to stretch their limbs,” says Garry Lumbers, a descendant of Lewis. “Can you imagine the things that they went through?”
The late Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston gives us a detailed account of Lewis’ torturous journey from Africa to Alabama in “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,'” published last year.
“It’s a singular work. It’s a treasure that represents so much of our national and international history,” says Deborah G. Plant, editor of “Barracoon”. “There’s not much information when it comes to the lives and experiences of African peoples prior to their enslavement in America. … Rarely is there a first-person account of that part of our history. So Cudjo’s narrative is rare.”
Resigned to the fact that he could not return to his African homeland, Lewis helped create a community in Plateau — homes, a church — with other former slaves. They called it Africatown.
Lewis married, had five children and survived as best he could in Africatown.
“They came to Alabama with nothing but what was inside of them,” Plant says. “They came with the wisdom of Africa. That’s what got him through all the difficult times and challenges that he had to experience. His cultural traditions allowed him the vision to see a way out of that darkness that he was forced into.”
In 1927, Hurston traveled from New York to Plateau to interview Lewis, the last known survivor of the Clotilda, and get an understanding of that darkness. “I want to know who you are,” Hurston told Lewis, “how you came to be a slave … how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man.”
And so over three months, Lewis told Hurston his story of capture, enslavement and freedom as he knew it. They bonded over peaches, watermelon and hams. Hurston took down Lewis’s raw, broken African dialect, his unedited words.
Hurston, who died in 1960, finished the final draft of “Barracoon” in 1931. But publishers were not interested in the manuscript, and it languished in a collection at Howard University for decades. A few years ago, the Zora Neale Hurston Trust and HarperCollins decided to publish some of Hurston’s material. “Barracoon” was released in May 2018.
Lumbers learned of his slave ancestor through his grandmother. Growing up, Lumbers remembers swinging from the bust of Lewis that was mounted across the street from Union Baptist Church, named after the union soldiers who in April 1965 told the slaves in Plateau that they were free.
“All my life I’ve been told the story,” Lumbers says. “Told how he came over on the Clotilda. Told about how there was so many slaves on the Clotilda. They were slaves from 1860 to 1865 and then came to be free. How they banded together and bought the land.”
But there were some things his grandmother didn’t tell him. From “Barracoon”, Lumbers learned of Lewis’s brutal capture. The warriors of the Dahomey tribe raided Lewis’s village, decapitated those who tried to escape and wore the heads on their belts. The warriors then smoked the heads. Lumbers describes the slaves’ traumatic transport on the Clotilda, as told in “Barracoon”, as “horrendous.”
Lumbers, who lives in Brookhaven, Pa., about 20 minutes outside Philadelphia, works for Mars Candy. He talks of returning to Plateau, where the population has dropped to a few thousand and industry has left. There’s one tree left on the family’s land — Lewis’s pecan tree.
After more than 50 years on American soil, Lewis still longed for Africa. He wanted to go home, Lumbers says.
“This is the real ‘Roots’. There (were) 110 people on the Clotilda. All of them made it. They took the burden of the nation and created a town and started their own rules. They adapted to the hand they were dealt,” he says. “They keep saying ‘the last black cargo.’ The black cargo is still here. It’s us.”
Lottie Joiner is editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.