Part three of The Last Slave Ship. Click here to read part two. http://porchscene.com/2017/01/09/unbroken/
A Far Cry
by Gary Wright
An 1861 federal court case, the US v. Byrnes Meaher, was brought against Timothy Meaher and John Dabey, but because there were no documents connecting them to the Clothilda, and the passenger manifest could not be located, there was not enough evidence presented to convict the Meahers. The case was dismissed. The start of the American Civil War was also an important factor in the dismissal of the case. When the Union government was replaced by the Confederate government in the South, there was no interest in pursuing such matters. With the United States reunited after the war, Union officials decided that dredging up such issues would only serve to inflame a defeated South, whom the Northerners felt were on the verge of inciting hostilities.
Cudjoe Lewis, the best-known and most vocal of all the Africatowners, was born Oluale Kazoola in the Bante region of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin,) He was born into the Yoruba Tribe of that area and began his training as a warrior at the age of 14. The Yoruba vastly outnumbered the Dahomey and, as such, a state of virtual war existed between the two more or less permanently. Whenever either side lost a conflict, its survivors could almost certainly count on being sold as slaves. Kossola planned to take a wife and begin a tribal life in that fertile region as had so many others who lived and died without their names ever even being remembered. Fate, however, intervened and he was destined to begin an unimaginable journey through a life of circumstance, and his name would be written down, unexpurgated, in history. Shortly before his 20th birthday, his village was conquered by the kingdom of Dahomey. Kossola and other captives were marched to the coastal port city of Ouidah where he was held in a slave pen called a barracoon for three weeks, waiting to be sold.
The Meaher property where Africatown was originally established, was a rural area far from the town of Mobile, where the inhabitants could fish, trap animals, grow crops and live, largely unhampered by the white society. The group built shelters of whatever they found growing in the Alabama woods and swamplands, and adapted their hunting to the rich game they discovered in the area. It has, however, been completely overtaken by the city of Mobile and overwhelmed by modern society. The historic district is encompassed in Mobile city limits by Jakes Lane, Paper Mill Road, Warren Road (Bay Bridge Road), Chin Street and Railroad Street. There are only a few markers to commemorate the place, and only a few pieces of moldy paper in the archives of the Mobile Library and in the Archives of the University of South Alabama, which holds the memories of a proud race of people who resisted domination, who held their own for so many years against encroaching change, and whose indomitable spirit fought for so long to remain faithful to their heritage.
(The last remaining structure in Africatown)
Now, Africatown is little more than a footnote in the pages of history that marches unrelentingly on. After the Civil War when the slaves were freed, many of the surviving Africans who had been separated from their fellow tribesmen, found their way back to Africatown and reunited with fellow members. Back in the 1920s, it is said that over 4,000 descendants and friends of the first Africans called Africatown their home. Nowadays, though, local inhabitants are more likely to respond to the term ‘the Project’ rather than Africatown. Foul odors given off from the nearby paper mills permeate the environment, and sludge and muck have killed all the clams, shrimp, and fish that the locals used to pluck from the area bays for sustenance. The ground, itself, so polluted that even the hardy turnip will not grow. All that grows now in Africatown is despair, manifested by the fruits all too common in lower-class America: teen pregnancy, gang violence, and alcoholism among the older ones and rampant drug usage among the youth.
As the story continues to the present day, as with so many real-life chronicles, it never actually ends. Stories of people live on forever. People may be held in captivity or placed in darkness, bereft of hope, but their histories can never die. Eventually, they will return and will pick up their never-ending stories and move on, despite awful, evil damage to their bodies, their pride, and their future. But it is the stories that allow them, nay, compel them to march forward into that unknown and often unkind future.
In 1928, the well-known African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston visited the small black suburb just north of Mobile, Alabama and interviewed an elder named Cudjoe Lewis. Mr. Lewis was interviewed by several local and national authors and scholars, and he remained passionate and vocal in trying to keep alive the story of his people and their memories. He died in 1934 at the age of 96. His burial marker reads simply, “Last Survivor.”
(The busts on a tribute to Cudjoe Lewis and a 20th century Africatown mayor were decapitated by vandals in 2011)
Progress has not been kind to Africatown. It has been left as an area bereft of hope, with absolutely no future; a far cry from the colony of promise and expectancy held so dear by those proud remnants of a disastrous war on a foreign shore, a nightmarish trip across an unknown sea, and castaway on a strange new land. But, still, it is one of the few places in America where African-Americans can remember where they came from in Africa, their lineage, and can recount their ancestral home fondly.
This story has no end for, even today, the descendants of the captives on the last slave ship to America, amid crushing problems of their modern life, recall and retell a proud heritage. These third and fourth generation offspring, when retelling memories and stories of their forebears, become vibrant and their eyes light up at such impressive stories of their people who voyaged so far, overcame so much, and withstood for so long. They have a story worth remembering and worth retelling, and it stands as testimony and tribute to the indomitable spirit of a people unbroken.
Last Structure image by Robert D. Bullard @DrBobBullard