One of the Last Slave Ship Survivors Describes His Ordeal in a 1930s Interview

One of the Last Slave Ship Survivors Describes His Ordeal in a 1930s Interview

More than 60 years after the abolition of slavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston made an incredible connection: She located one of the last survivors of the last slave ship to bring captive Africans to the United States.

Hurston, a known figure of the Harlem Renaissance who would later write the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, conducted interviews with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis), but struggled to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they were only released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” that came out in May of 2018.

READ MORE: Wreckage of the Last US Slave Ship is Finally Identified in Alabama

READ MORE: A Survivor of the Last Slave Ship Live Until 1940

Hurston’s book tells the story of Lewis, who was born Oluale Kossola in what is now the West African country of Benin. A member of the Yoruba people, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe invaded his village, captured him along with others, and marched them 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 practice in 1807, but Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.

READ MORE: The Atlantic Slave Trade Continued Illegally in American Until the Civil War

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 ablaze on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (its remains may have been uncovered in January 2018).

READ MORE: Descendants of Last Slave Ship Still Live in Alabama Community

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 owners.

“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 General Robert E. Lee surrendered 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.

READ MORE: This 1841 Rebellion at Sea Freed More than 100 Enslaved People

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 freepeople saved up money to buy land near 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 get to hear Lewis’ story the way that he told it.

READ MORE: Forced Marriage as a 12-Year-Old Girl: The Life of America's Last Slave Ship Survivor


Cudjo Lewis

Cudjo Lewis Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in the modern West African country of Benin to Oluale and his second wife Fondlolu. He was the second of four children and had 12 stepsiblings. He was a member of the Yoruba people, more specifically the Isha (a Yoruba sub-group), whose traditional home is in the Banté region of eastern Benin. Kossola was born into a modest family, but his grandfather was an officer of the town's king. Kossola and his siblings had a happy and active childhood. At 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into oro, a secret Yoruba male society whose role is to police and control society. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a young girl he saw at the market, and at his father's urging underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married. In April 1860, in the midst of Kossola's training, Ghezo, the King of Dahomey, and his army attacked the town, killed the king and many of the people, and took the rest of the townspeople prisoner. Cudjo Lewis in African Town In Mobile, he was enslaved by James Meaher, a wealthy ship captain and brother of Timothy Meaher, the man who had organized the expedition. James Meaher was unable to pronounce Kossola's name, so the young man told his new owner to call him Cudjo, a name given by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa to boys who are born on Monday. During his five years of enslavement, the young man worked on a steamship and lived with his shipmates under Meaher's house, which was built high above the ground.

Cudjo Lewis Financial hardship forced Cudjo to sell several plots of land. By the early 1920s, all his companions from the Clotilda had passed away, leaving him as the only survivor. During the last years of his life, he achieved some fame when writers and journalists interviewed him and made his story known to the public. Alabama-born author Zora Neale Hurston filmed him, and he is thus the only known African deported through the slave trade whose moving image exists. Cudjo Lewis died of age-related illness on July 26, 1935, at about 94. Although he had always wanted to go back home, he was buried among his family in the Africans' cemetery that opened in 1876. Today, a tall white monument marks his grave. Some of his descendants still live in Mobile. Two women, Sally "Redoshi" Smith and Matilda McCrear, were the last surviving members of the group, living until 1937 and 1940, respectively.

Diouf, Sylviane Anna. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Found on film: the last survivor of the final slave ship from Africa to the US

Cudjo Lewis became a literary sensation last year when he was declared ‘the last slave’. But now a British academic says that epithet belongs to Redoshi, a woman who was the subject of an extraordinary cover-up and decades of white denial

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Her name was Redoshi. They took her from Africa, and probably forced her to become a child bride so she would fetch a higher price in the US as one half of a “breeding couple”.

The overseers beat her if she failed to understand English. She passed on the language of her African homeland to her children and grandchildren anyway.

Even as an old woman, she kept the memory of home alive, decorating her Alabama yard as they did in west Africa, keeping the old spiritual beliefs beneath her Christianity.

By any measure, Redoshi, renamed Sally Smith, was an extraordinary woman. But now a British academic has revealed she was also the last survivor from the final slave ship to take captive human cargo from Africa to the US.

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It had been thought that dubious distinction belonged to a man: Kossula, who died in Alabama in 1935 as Cudjo Lewis.

Indeed, last year Lewis became something of a literary sensation when his life story was finally published, after a rejected manuscript by the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston became the book Barracoon, subtitled: The Story of the Last Slave.

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Now, however, Dr Hannah Durkin, a lecturer in literature and film at Newcastle University, has revealed compelling evidence to suggest that Lewis was not quite the last slave. She thinks Redoshi arrived in the US on the same ship as Lewis, and outlived him by two years, dying in 1937.

Moreover, in an article published in the journal Slavery and Abolition Durkin describes how Redoshi’s existence was effectively covered up by Hurston – the very woman who wrote so movingly about Lewis.

In her Barracoon manuscript, Hurston had introduced Lewis by saying: “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left . The only man on Earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home, the Lenten tones of slavery.”

But as she wrote this, Hurston knew there was probably also one woman left: Redoshi. Because on her travels through the American south, she had met her.

As Durkin explains in her article Finding last Middle Passage survivor Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith on the page and screen, in July 1928, a few months after interviewing Lewis, Hurston wrote to poet Langston Hughes: “Oh! Almost forgot. Found another one of the original Africans about 200 miles upstate on the Tombigbee river. She is most delightful, a better talker than Cudjo . But no one will ever know about her but us.”

Hurston kept her secret. She published no further details of a woman who could potentially have provided a vanishingly rare account of the notorious Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas as experienced by a female slave. She never even divulged the name of this “most delightful” good talker. The trail, historians assumed, had gone cold.

But then in 2016 Durkin read Every Tongue Got To Confess, an unfinished collection of the writer’s interviews that was only published in 2001, 51 years after Hurston’s death. There is no interview with Redoshi in that tome.

But as she went through the appendix, which reproduces the list of interviewees compiled by Hurston before she abandoned her project, Durkin spotted a reference to “Mrs Sally Smith: Born in Tarkwa, Gold Coast. Brought to America in 1859.”

The penny dropped. “Brought to America in 1859” was a slightly bungled reference to the 1860 voyage of the slave smuggling ship Clotilda, which brought 116 captives including Lewis to the US 52 years after America banned the importation (but not the ownership) of slaves.

Which meant “Mrs Sally Smith” was the woman mentioned in Hurston’s 1928 letter.

“Suddenly,” Durkin tells The Independent, “here was this woman’s name. It was incredible, especially as historians had seemed so sure her name had been lost.”

And when Durkin embarked on the trail of Sally Smith, she discovered something even more incredible: Redoshi had been filmed.

In the summer of 2017, while reading a copy of the book Documenting Racism by J Emmett Winn, Durkin noticed a reference to ex-slave “Sally Smith” having appeared in the obscure 1938 US public information film The Negro Farmer.

She leapt off her sofa and went to her computer. And there on the 21st century online platform that is YouTube was the face of the last survivor of the final ship to land slaves in the US.

Film also exists of Lewis. But this, Durkin realised, was the only film footage so far uncovered of a woman who had endured slavery in the US. Redoshi’s 18-second film appearance was also the first known footage of a female Middle Passage survivor.

“It was absolutely incredible to be able to give a face to the name,” says Durkin, “To be able to see what she looked like and approach her as a person in a way you can’t when reading a text. When you watch her on that film, she really does become a living person.”

The commentary confirmed that “Aunt Sally Smith” had died in 1937, two years after Cudjo.​ Durkin, however, is almost certain that nearly everything else the white narrator said about Sally Smith was wrong.

He referred to her as “long past her 110th year when she died in 1937”. Durkin, however, believes Redoshi died at the considerably more common age of about 89.

The inaccuracy, she suggests, stems from a refusal by some 1920s and 1930s white Americans to accept the realities of slavery.

“Slavery was seen by mainstream historians as this civilising endeavour,” says Durkin. “One justification was that it was saving the souls of Africans by taking them to the US and converting them to Christianity.”

This preference for a “white saviour” narrative, Durkin believes, may explain why the only known newspaper interview with Redoshi seems to have glossed over much of what she endured.

When SL Flock interviewed Redoshi for the Montgomery Advertiser in 1932, he did so in consultation with the daughter of her former owner Washington Smith, the founder of the Bank of Selma.

As well as quoting Redoshi as saying “white folks in this country good”, Smith was a “good man”, and “Mistress Smith, we love her and no want to leave”, Flock said she had been a married woman of 25 when captured in Africa.

This would have made her – as the public information film later stated – more than 100 years old when she died in 1937.

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Durkin, however, believes Redoshi was captured as a child of 12.

She bases her conclusion on the only other surviving written record of Redoshi, contained in five pages of the memoir Bridge Across Jordan by Selma civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Having spent an afternoon in the early 1930s chatting to the ex-slave, Boynton Robinson quoted Redoshi as saying her captors forced her to become a child bride: “I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe.

“I couldn’t understand his talk and he couldn’t understand me . They put us on block together and sold us for man and wife.”

Durkin thinks that, writing more than 40 years after her conversation with Redoshi, Boynton Robinson failed to remember every detail of the conversation accurately.

But given the alternative is to suggest Redoshi died at an age that was wholly exceptional for a black woman in 1930s America, Durkin is inclined to believe she was captured and forcibly married while still a child.

“I can only imagine the trauma she endured,” says Durkin. “This is not about civilising people. It is about exploiting them for profit, breeding them like animals. This is child abuse.”

She is also indignant about how Redoshi was used in the public information film to support a narrative of “abject” black Americans in need of “rescue” by whites.

While Redoshi can be seen speaking in the film, her voice is not heard. Instead the white narrator asserts that she “lived to see the hard lot endured by her generation and that of her children in some measure bettered by this [Department of Agriculture] campaign to help negroes help themselves”.

Referring to the extensive economic control plantation owners were able to exert over supposedly free black tenant farmers, Durkin says: “It is incredibly deceitful that they present this white saviour narrative of coming along and helping these African Americans or Africans who can’t look after themselves. The reality was that they were being horribly exploited.”

Although, according to Boynton Robinson’s account, Redoshi’s late husband Yawith – with whom she eventually established a loving relationship – had showed considerable ingenuity in resisting exploitation and ensuring he was at least paid properly for the cotton he produced.

Redoshi, meanwhile, took pride in improving the appearance of the “dark and tiny one-room and kitchen hut” where she was kept as a slave and lived as a free woman.

Boynton Robinson noted how her yard was “immaculate”, with “flowers painted in circles surrounded by half-buried bottles in geometrical formation”.

The use of the bottles, Durkin and others have noted, seemed to recall how some west African homes were decorated in a way that was thought to deter evil spirits.

Boynton Robinson also recalled Redoshi predicting heavy rain, citing the spirits and deities of her west African homeland.

“It is so, so sad,” Dr Durkin. “From those little details you see her doing what she can to hold on to her beliefs, how she was denied the life she should have had.

“She is just one voice, but she gives us a sense of what other women kidnapped in west Africa endured, how they tried to live in slavery and post-slavery America.”

It is, she acknowledges, “frustrating” that Hurston concealed the existence of Redoshi, and seems never to have written down what the ex-slave told her.

A full-length interview with a female Middle Passage survivor, Durkin explains, would have become a document of the foremost historical importance: “There are almost no first-hand accounts from female survivors of the transatlantic slave trade. They are incredibly rare, and very sparse indeed.”

But Durkin finds it impossible to bear a grudge against Hurston. Her freedom too was being constrained.

Hurston interviewed Lewis and met Redoshi after being sent to Alabama by Charlotte Osgood Mason, her white, wealthy and controlling patron.

As described by Rebecca Panovka in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “in exchange for a monthly stipend, she was to seek out the ‘music, folklore, poetry, voodoo, conjure, manifestations of art, and kindred matters among American Negroes.

“Hurston was legally obligated to ‘lay before’ Mason whatever material she collected. She was forbidden from sharing her material, or even from disclosing its subject matter without prior approval from Mason.”

These potentially stifling constraints also seemed to be pushing Hurston in directions she did not want to go.

While she may have been happy to secretly insert Redoshi’s voice into some of her literary fiction, Durkin thinks Hurston would have been far less keen on writing another straight slavery narrative. Hurston and her fellow Harlem Renaissance writers, explains Durkin, were determined to be respected as intellectuals, not belittled as the descendants of slaves – something that still attracted stigma in the 1920s.

In 1928, the same year she interviewed Lewis and met Redoshi, Hurston expressed her feelings in an essay entitled How It Feels to be Coloured Me.

“I am not tragically coloured,” she insisted. “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. [But] slavery is 60 years in the past . I am off to a flying start and I must not halt to look behind and weep.”

And yet, says Durkin, Hurston was seemingly being pushed into writing about the ex-slave Lewis by Mason: “She was far less interested in slavery than her patron.

“The more I read about Hurston, the more I feel sorry for her. Her career was so constrained by others because she was a black woman.”

Which means, it seems, Durkin can see much to admire in both women: the writer and the African-born slave.

“She was such an incredible woman,” says Durkin of Redoshi. “The psychological harm she must have endured is unfathomable, and yet somehow she survived and, as much as she could, tried to thrive and ensure her descendants had much better lives than she did.”

Before she died, according to the account left by Boynton Robinson, Redoshi had seen some of her many great-grandchildren become teachers and pastors.

Durkin wonders what has become of modern generations of the former slave’s descendants. Tracing them, she says, is bedevilled by US census-takers’ inability to render a correct and consistent spelling for Redoshi’s only daughter, to whom she had given an African name recorded as “Leasy”, “Lethe”, “Letia” and even “Luth A”.

“They must be out there somewhere,” says Durkin, “But at the moment I doubt anyone would know for sure that they are descended from the last survivor of the Clotilda.”


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

Roughly 60 years after the abolition of slavery, 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 the Harlem Renaissance who 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).

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 practice in 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 ablaze 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.

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 General Robert 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.

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 freepeople 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.


News: One of the last African Slave ship survivors from Benin, Oluale Kossola describes his ordeal in a 1930s interview

More than 60 years after the abolition of slavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston made an incredible connection: She located one of the last survivors of the last slave ship to bring captive Africans to the United States.

According to history.com, Hurston, a known figure of the Harlem Renaissance who would later write the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, conducted interviews with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis), but struggled to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they were only released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” that came out in May of 2018.

Hurston’s book tells the story of Lewis, who was born Oluale Kossola in what is now the West African country of Benin. A member of the Yoruba people, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe invaded his village, captured him along with others, and marched them 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 practice in 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 ablaze 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 owners.

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 General Robert E. Lee surrendered 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.


The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave An Interview In The 1930s. It Just Surfaced

Roughly 60 years after the abolition of slavery, 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 the Harlem Renaissance who 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, were only released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” that came out on May 8, 2018.

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 practice in 1807, but Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.

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.

“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.”

Robert E. Lee surrendered 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.

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 freepeople saved up money to buy land near 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.


Heartbreaking Interview Given By The Last Slave Ship Survivor In 1930s Was Made Public Last Year

On one warm and unsuspecting day of July in 1860, a schooner named Clotilda, with the Captain William Foster and 110 African slaves on board, arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Clotilda was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States. Among more than one hundred enslaved African people, there was also Cudjo (sometimes spelled as Cudjoe) Kazoola (or Kossula) Lewis &ndash the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States.

Cudjo Lewis, originally named Kossula (American listeners would later transcribe Cudjo&rsquos given name as &ldquoKazoola&rdquo), was born around 1840 into the Yoruba tribe, in the Banté region, which today belongs to the West African country of Benin. His father&rsquos name was Oluwale (or Oluale) and his mother&rsquos &ndash Fondlolu. Kossula had five siblings and twelve half-siblings, who were the children of his father&rsquos other two wives.

Mobile Bay and wreckage of slave ship Clotilda are pictured above.
In the spring of 1860, when Cudjo was only 19 years old, he was taken as a prisoner by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey. After the Dahomian tribe captured him, Cudjo was taken to the coast. There, he and more than one hundred other men and women, were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda &ndash the last slave ship to reach the shores of the continental United States. The captives were brought to Mobile Bay, Alabama. The international slave trade was not legal at that time already for more than 50 years. Along with many European nations, the U.S. had outlawed the practice in 1807, but Lewis&rsquo journey proves how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo. However, to avoid detection of the authorities, the captors of the slaves snuck them into Alabama at dark hours and made them hide in the swamp for several days. To get rid of any hard evidence, they put the 86-foot Clotilda on fire on the banks of Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Ship&rsquos remains are believed to be uncovered in January 2018.

If it wasn&rsquot for Zora Neale Hurston &ndash an anthropologist and a known figure of the Harlem Renaissance &ndash we may have never heard Cudjo&rsquos story from Cudjo himself. Some 60 years after the abolition of slavery, she made an amazing discovery and located the last surviving captive &ndash Cudjo &ndash of the last slave ship to bring African slaves to the United States. Zora went on to conduct numerous interviews with Cudjo, but struggled to get them published. One of the main reasons for rejection, was that Zora refused to alter Cudjo&rsquos words for them to fit into the frames of the standard American English. At that time, her anthropological interviews were often seen as controversial due to the use of vernacular dialogue. Even some black American thinkers thought that the use of vernacular might enforce the caricaturist views of the black people inside the minds of the white people. Zora wasn&rsquot the one to back down, and the book with interviews with Cudjo was only published on May 2018 and it was named Barracoon: The Story of the Last &ldquoBlack Cargo&rdquo.

Zora&rsquos book tells the story of Cudjo Lewis and his life. The heartbreaking narrative provides a first-hand look at the trauma enforced by the slavery. After Cudjo was abducted from his home, he was forced onto a ship with hundreds of strangers. They wound up spending several months together, only to be separated in Alabama to go to work in different plantations. &ldquoWe very sorry to be parted from one &rsquonother,&rdquo Lewis recalled. &ldquoWe seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one &rsquonother. 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.&rdquo Cudjo also describes what it was like to arrive on a plantation where no one could speak his language and explain to where he was, what was going on, what was he ought to do. &ldquoWe doan know why we be bring &rsquoway from our country to work lak dis. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.&rdquo

Understandably, Mr. Lewis expected to receive compensation for being captured and forced into slavery, and was angry to find out that the long-awaited emancipation didn&rsquot come with the promise of &ldquoforty acres and a mule,&rdquo or any other kind of reparations. Bitter and frustrated, Cudjo, together with a group of 31 other freepeople saved up enough money to buy land near the state capital Mobile, which they called Africatown. Today, the monument of Cudjo Lewis proudly stands in Africatown, Mobile, Alabama, reminding of the struggles its people endured. It was sculpted back in 2016 by April Terra Livingston and is located in front of the Union Missionary Baptist Church.

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Afro American Literature and Blues People Curriculum

I added this material to the Blues People blog concerning The Slave Ship Clotilda, the last slave ship to carry new slaves successfully to the United States, for a number of reasons. First, I had always heard that there were very late arrivals to slavery from continental Africa well after the importation of slaves was illegal in the United States but this book made available to me the precise documentation of one case.

I first became aware of this case through the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, who had interviewed one of the elderly survivors of this group in the 1930s and who had written a book, which was never published, about him. Much of what Hurston has written or said remains unsubstantiated and unpursued in a scholarly way, perhaps because Hurston never completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology and therefore much of her "research" is taken lightly by the people who generally determine the importance of such things. That she often lied about things having to do with her personal life doesn't help the matter. Nonetheless, in this particular case this particular alleged survivor of the slave ship Clotilda was very real indeed, as you can see in part from this photograph of him. Also from reading Sylvaine Diouf's recent and fascinating study of this case, DREAMS OF AFRICA IN ALABAMA: THE SLAVE SHIP CLOTILDA AND THE STORY OF THE LAST AFRICANS BROUGHT TO AMERICA.

I envision currently this curriculum to include, however minimally, the vast mostly unchartered field of slavery studies in the continental United States. In addition to the various cases of groups of Africans who continued to arrive as slaves in the United States after the importation of slaves from Africa was rendered illegal, there is the fascinating case of the many legally emancipated African Americans who continued to be held in forced servitude well after slavery was rendered illegal in the United States as a consequence of the Civil War (1860-1965), and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th ammendments.See, for instance, Douglas A. Blackmon's SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: THE RE-ENSLAVEMENT OF BLACK AMERICANS FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO WORLD WAR II, Doubleday 2008.

There is a very interesting researcher/activist in the South right now, who I will subsequently devote a post to, who has begun to investigate some of the extreme economic under-development of African American populations in the South as a consequence of these pockets of continued isolation and enslavement, particularly in the outback of such states as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. These were places where the Confederacy's failure to win the Civil War landed hard and where the acceptance of the liberty of African Americans never really took root because of all manner of local challenges (some of them, interestingly, both technological and geographical) until the re-enactment of the Civil War in the guise of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Moreover, if slavery is defined as forced unpaid labor and not by ethnicity and/or forced immigration, this would be a vast field of study indeed revealing many interesting chapters in the history of Native, Asian, and Latin populations. Since we still like to think of ourselves as the home of the free and the land of the brave, we have an obligation to take a continued interest in such matters. It is our plan to live up to that obligation.


Barracoon

For the first time, the story of the last survivor of the last slave ship to come to the United States is available to the public. That fact on its own is significant. What makes it extraordinary is that the anthropologist who recorded the narrative of Cudjo Lewis (ca. 1840-1935)—whose African name was Oluale Kossola—was none other than Zora Neale Hurston ’28. Barracoon had been previously available in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University this spring, it became available to the public when Amistad/HarperCollins published the text in an edition edited and introduced by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant.

Hurston, born in 1891, grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, and is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. An anthropologist and ethnographer as well as a fiction writer, Hurston was a towering figure in the Harlem Renaissance. At Barnard, where Hurston was the first black graduate, she studied with Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas and began documenting black life in the South — recording personal stories, folklore, and songs (many of which are accessible to the public from the Library of Congress digital collections, available through the Library of Congress).

Barracoon is the result of Hurston’s trips to Alabama, beginning in the late 1920s, where she interviewed and filmed Kossola. This project was funded by a wealthy, white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, and overseen by Boas. An early version of Hurston’s manuscript, published in The Journal of Negro History in 1927, borrowed heavily from a previously published interview with Kossola conducted by a white, pro-slavery writer—something her mentor Boas easily discovered. Hurston, still learning her craft, was given a second chance she returned to Alabama and interviewed Kossola again.

When we think about Hurston as a writer, we recognize her wonderful use of language. But these are Kossola’s words—his story the way that he would tell it.

Her manuscript from 1931 describes Kossola’s kidnapping and sale by his own people the slaughter of his West Africa community his experience being held in a “barracoon” or enclosure used for slaves his passage across the Atlantic as human cargo on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States, docking in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1859 his enslavement for five-and-a-half years and his post-slavery life. That life included attempts by Clotilda survivors to return home after emancipation and their later purchase of land to establish Africatown, the only town in the United States founded by Africans and the first to be run continuously by black people.

Barnard has long highlighted the wide range of Hurston’s work. In 2005, the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s journal, The Scholar & Feminist Online, published a collection of essays, video excerpts of dramatic readings, and archival materials on Hurston. In 2016, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Hurston’s birth, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Monica L. Miller hosted a scholarly conference on campus to celebrate Hurston’s work and legacy. Presentations made at this conference will be included in a future issue of The Scholar & Feminist Online, edited by Professor Miller.

In this “Break This Down” interview, Professor Miller discusses this text and extraordinary historical milestone.

Why is this text important?

This text is important because there are so few that actually contain an account of the Middle Passage. At the time that Hurston interviewed Kossola, he was the last person alive who had been captured in West Africa, endured the Middle Passage, and endured the racial hierarchies of the American South.

The fact that it was Hurston who recorded it, and the ways in which she recorded it, are historically significant. This text is an incredible gift.

What is the significance of this text in the context of Hurston’s career?

One aspect that fascinates me is the way Hurston presents Kossola’s own words and his story. It’s not only his own story here but also his story in the way that he would tell it.

When we think about Hurston as a writer, including as a writer of folklore and other anthropological research and not just her fiction or memoir, we recognize her wonderful use of metaphorical language. We go to Hurston for her celebration of African American storytelling—to hear her voice.

But this text does not have Hurston’s voice in it really. There are a few moments when she asks Kossola questions, and he questions her back, which is great. But she is not driving this text—it’s Kossola. She was invested in preserving his history and culture. Yet at the same time, his story becomes a part of her: She writes about him in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and it’s clear that she never forgets him.

How does this text fit into the Harlem Renaissance project?

One of the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance was recovering African heritage—thinking about the base on which African American culture rests. One of the major questions of the Renaissance, to quote from the 1925 poem “Heritage” by Countee Cullen, was “What is Africa to me?”

This text provides both a literary and literal rendering of an actual relationship of a formerly enslaved African to Africa. This historical account had been missing in African American history. Had it been published in the 1930s, it would have profoundly resonated.

Yet this account presented to Hurston a conundrum. The epigraph for this edition of Barracoon, taken from Dust Tracks on a Road, is Hurston’s quote: “But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me…. It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory.” This is a lesson she learned from Kossola he had told Hurston about the way he was captured and his village was destroyed—by other Africans.

This element provides an additional way to think about the relationship between African Americans and Africa. In some ways, it is a productive complication.

How does this text resonate with slave narratives?

This book is not a slave narrative. Kossola doesn’t talk much about his enslavement. Instead, this is an account of what it means to be black in America in the late nineteenth century in the aftermath of the Emancipation and during Reconstruction. So this book sits on the side of the slave narrative tradition—not only because of the information he relates but also because slave narratives were mostly stories that were mediated or written down by white people, and Kossola’s story is his own.

What about fictionalized slave narratives?

While I was reading this, I kept thinking about Beloved by Toni Morrison. Beloved is full of moments in which the formerly enslaved talk to each other about their trauma. And then one person will put a hand on another, in some ways in order to quiet them—because they can’t hear any more there’s nothing more to say. And you see the same thing when Kossola talks about the raid on his village and the decimation of his community. He can’t speak. And Hurston’s reaction is, “I saw his face full of sorrow.” And when he talks about the Middle Passage, she says his face looked like “a horror mask.” So I am struck by the silence around issues of trauma—the silence around survival.

I also thought about the movie Black Panther. Kossola’s narrative shows the conflicted relationship between the African Americans who had been enslaved and the Africans who were the latest arrivals. In Black Panther, Wakanda is a place in Africa that has not been colonized, and Killmonger comes back to claim his African-ness. It’s in some ways the opposite of Kossola’s experience yet also an expression of the incredible tension about Afrodiasporic identity. In the movie, the characters T’Challa and Killmonger belong to each other yet are also cut off from each other.

When reading this text and thinking about its resonances in African American history and culture, you can’t help but think about the ways in which we belong to each other, the ways we are responsible for one another, and the ways in which we attempt to repair loss and loneliness. •


RELATED ARTICLES

Painstaking research from Dr Hannah Durkin at Newcastle University pieced together the history of Redoshi's life from a variety of different sources.

She first appeared in works from author author Zora Neale Hurston and later in a memoir by the civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Redoshi also featured in a film released a year after her death by the Department of Agriculture called 'The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living'.

'These materials add hugely to our understanding of transatlantic slavery as a lived experience,' says Dr Hannah Durkin, at Newcastle University, who led the research, published in the journal Slavery and Abolition,.

'Now we know that its horrors endured in living memory until 1937, and they allow us to meaningfully consider slavery from a West African woman's perspective for the first time.

'The only other documents we have of African women's experiences of transatlantic slavery are fleeting allusions that were typically recorded by slave owners, so it is incredible to be able to tell Redoshi's life story.

'Rarely do we get to hear the story of an individual woman, let alone see what she looked like, how she dressed and where she lived.'

Dr Durkin never intended to study Redoshi directly, and instead stumbled across her remarkable story after she was mentioned in other records.

Plantation owner Washington Smith purchased Redoshi upon her arrival in the United States as a child bride, and she was a slave at the Bogue Chitto plantation in Dallas County, Alabama, for nearly five years in both the fields and the house.

Her husband, who was known as William or Billy, was kidnapped with her and died in the 1910s or 1920s.

Slavery had been made illegal in 1807 but some illegally smuggled in slaves from West Africa until it was formally abolished - in the North in 1863 and in the South in 1865. The Clotilda (artist's impression, pictured) was the last ship to ever bring slaves to the states and Redoshi was on-board

The last surviving victim of the transatlantic slave trade was previously believed to be Oluale Kossola, who was also known as Cudjo Lewis and died in 1935 (pictured)

Famed Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston in 1928 met Cudjo Kazoola Lewis (pictured). Lewis, who was born as Kossola, was nearly 90 years old and living in Plateau, Alabama. He was thought to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village in West Africa in 1859 and forced into slavery in America aged 19

'I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe who had a family in Africa,' Redoshi is quoted as saying to Mrs Boynton Robinson.

'I couldn't understand his talk and he couldn't understand me. They put us on block together and sold us for man and wife.'

She continued to live on the plantation with her daughter after emancipation and died there more than 70 years later.

Her exact birth date is unknown, but it is believed she lived until the age of 89 or 90.

Redoshi is now regarded to be the last living person who came from Africa and entered the slave trade, but other slaves may have lived later - such as those who were born into slavery.

Dr Durkin says she offered some resilience to the brutal regime and passed on some of her original culture and language to her children.

'Although this is just a snapshot of a life, you do get a sense of who Redoshi was,' she says.

'She lived through tremendous trauma and separation, but there is also a sense of pride in these texts.

'Her resistance, either through her effort to own her own land in America or in smaller acts like keeping her West African beliefs alive, taking care in her appearance and her home and the joy she took in meeting a fellow African in the 1930s, help to show who she was.'

THE CLOTILDA, ALSO KNOWN AS THE CLOTILDE: A BRIEF HISTORY

The Clotilda, a two-masted schooner, set out for Africa in 1859 on a bet by an Alabama steamboat captain and plantation owner, Timothy Meaher.

He wanted to show he could sneak slaves into the country despite federal troops stationed at two forts that guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay.

The ship's captain, William Foster, was armed with $9,000 in gold to purchase around 100 slaves and ended up delivering 110 captives to Mobile in 1860 - one year before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Clotilda's voyage was planned by Timothy Meaher, a steamboat captain and plantation owner who wanted to show he could sneak slaves into the country

The ship was believed to be 23 feet wide and 86 feet long, though contemporary investigations assert the ship could be much longer.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson, but continued illegally up until the abolition of slavery - in the North in 1863 and in the South in 1865.

The journey was the last known instance of a slave ship landing in the United States.

The captain took the ship up the delta and burned it. Historian Sylvianne Diouf notes that the ship was burned in an effort to destroy all evidence of its slaving history.

The pair decided to burn the ship in an effort to conceal the crime they had committed

Neither Meaher nor Foster were convicted of a crime, though they could have faced death if their plot had been uncovered by the US government. Captain Foster hid the slaves in part by picking up lumber at multiple stops on his route.

Spellings of the ship are alternately Clotilda and Clotilde. It is not exactly clear how the ship got its name, but there is a 'Saint Clotilde' who is also known as Clotilda. She was a Frankish queen in the 6th Century who is credited with helping spread Catholicism.

The ploy occurred the year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Pictured is Abraham Lincoln with General George B McClellan at his headquarters in October 1862


Watch the video: Hidden History: Slaves Of The Wanderer