On March 2, 1807, Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa, and the law finally took effect on January 1, 1808. Cudjo Lewis was the last known survivor to arrive on the final slave ship to the United States. Through his life, he watched his world change in unimaginable ways, taking him from the safety of his childhood home in Africa to bitter captivity as a slave and then back again to a liberated, but limited, existence. His home changed, his family changed, his mind changed, his religion changed, even his name changed, but in the end, Lewis found peace with his experience and a way to embrace the painful life he was forced to live.
Born as Kossola around 1840 in the African country of Benin, Cudjo Lewis had five full siblings and twelve half-siblings within his polygamous family. He was part of a race now known as the Yoruba ethnic group that was once of the largest on the continent.
At the age of 14, Kossola began his training as a Benin warrior and was eventually inducted into oro, the Yoruba secret male society. This was a significant accomplishment for a boy his age, who was likely seeking approval and acceptance from his elders. By age 19, he was undergoing initiation training for full rights in his tribe and was well on his way to being an integral and respected part of his community.
Quite tragically, Kossola’s training was cut short by the arrival of some soldiers from the nearby town of Dahomey who entered his village, killing and imprisoning many of his neighbors.
Kossola was among the captured to be marched to Ouidah, a port city along the Atlantic, where he was sold to the captain of an illegal slave ship named the Clotilde. Along with 115 other Africans, Kossola was loaded onto the ship bound for America where he would spend the next 45 grueling days at sea as a newly branded slave.
After the long and excruciating journey, Kossola entered the Mississippi Sound on July 8, 1860, and was immediately transferred to a Mr. James Meaher of Mobile, Alabama who would become his new owner. The illegal slave ship Clotilde was quickly scuttled away to evade detection, while the captives were cleverly hidden from the authorities and sold to the highest bidder. Because his new master could not pronounce his African name, Kossola was dubbed “Cudjo,” a name that would stick with him for the rest of his days.
The Civil War began just one year after his arrival in the United States, and he had to endure a few more years of slavery before he was finally liberated in 1865. Unsure of what to do or how to find his home again, Cudjo and some other newly freed Africans developed a nearby community in Mobile fittingly called Africatown.
Just three miles outside Mobile, Africatown was an isolated reprieve from the white-dominated communities of the South. Surrounded by a swamp and a forest and only accessible by water, the town soon became a popular home for Africans looking to reconnect with their roots and find a way to reinvent their lives. Because many of them, including Cudjo, had only been in the new world less than 10 years and desperately wanted to return to Africa, they began to raise enough money to buy themselves passage back. Sadly, no matter how hard they tried, the price of a ticket was always too high.
When the folks of Africatown realized they could not afford their passage home, they deputized Cudjo to appeal to Meaher for the money to buy some land of their own. When the ex-master refused, Cudjo and his community proceeded to commit themselves to raising the money to do it themselves. After several years of back breaking labor, Cudjo purchased two acres of land in Mobile for $100.
Africatown was more than just a hideaway for ex-slaves, it was a self-contained community that constructed its own laws, spoke its own dialect, and allowed the residents to create a district based on shared African values. Together, they developed a local school, a church, and a cemetery. Africatown was not only a “black town” inhabited by people of African ancestry, but it became a safe enclave for people born in other countries as well. As one expert was quoted, “Black towns were safe havens from racism, but Africatown was a refuge from Americans.”
Although Cudjo’s new life in America provided him with most of what he needed, he struggled for a long time with his lost spirituality. His African beliefs had been quite different from the religious structure of the South, and he found himself longing for a way to connect with his higher power. He eventually converted to Christianity and joined the Baptist church where he would find the community of God he was looking for.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Cudjo began to share his remarkable story with a wide range of scholars and writers who were interested in sharing his history with the world. By 1925, Cudjo was documented as the last survivor of the Clotilde and had been officially recorded in several works of non-fiction. In 1927, he was interviewed by the author Nora Neale Hurston who also took photographs and recorded what is known to be the only film footage of an African slave trafficked to America. At 94 years old, Cudjo Lewis died on July 17, 1935, and was buried at the Plateau Cemetery in Africatown.
And the rest is history.