AfricaTown and the Last Slave Ship

Anthropology professor Neil Norman from the College of William & Mary has recently excavated sites in Plateau, Alabama, searching to reconstruct the lives and deaths of those early inhabitants of AfricaTown, according to this article at al.com. Dr. Norman has been working to reconstruct the everyday lives and history of AfricaTown’s residents, and to locate and map the gravesites of many of those residents, as well.

Abaché and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis

Abaché and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis

The project was funded and supported by local sources, including a grant from the Alabama Historical CommissionMobile County, the City of Mobile, and the Museum of Mobile.

The United States passed legislation in 1808, prohibiting the importation of slaves.  Those laws against importing human beings to be sold were largely ignored until the beginnings of the Civil War, however. As late as 1860, the Clotilda—widely identified as the last slave ship—carried a human cargo in excess of 100 souls (and perhaps as many as 160, the actual number varies by report). Men, women, and children imported from West Africa to Alabama, where they were to be sold as slaves.

Some reports have it that Timothy Meaher, the owner of the Clotilda, bet $100,000 that he could import a shipload of African captives, without getting caught. Other reports simply name Meaher as the financier. To evade the authorities waiting in nearby Mobile, Alabama, the human cargo were transferred to a waiting riverboat, and Captain William Foster burned the Clotilda then sank her. The captives were transported by riverboat up the Spanish River, then hidden, eventually some of them were sold, but many more escaped.

More than thirty of those original captives made their way back downriver to the outskirts of Mobile, where they established AfricaTown. From the last link:

The most noted of the original 33 was Cudjoe Lewis, who Howze said was her great-uncle. Lewis joined Allen and others to build churches, homes and schools. They built a community during a time of racial strife that has now survived nearly 150 years.

Records are not clear whether Africatown was ever formally incorporated as a town. It is now part of Pritchard, Ala., a suburb of Mobile. Africatown has more than 12,000 residents.

Mr. Lewis lived out his life in AfricaTown, and related much of the history of AfricaTown and its founders before his death in 1935.

Cudjo Lewis

photo from http://www.southalabama.edu/archives/html/gallery/over/ob7.htm

The Encyclopedia of Alabama website informs us:

After their secret arrival—in 1820 the introduction of Africans was declared an act of piracy punishable by death—about 25 young people were sold upriver to slave brokers, but the majority remained in Mobile. Thirty-two became the property of Timothy Meaher, who had financed the expedition, and his brother James enslaved eight others, including Cudjo Lewis; twenty were sent to Burns Meaher’s plantation in Clarke County; between five and eight went to William Foster as payment for the trip; and others were bought by plantation owner Thomas Buford. The young Africans were employed as deckhands, field hands, and domestics.

After emancipation following the end of the Civil War in 1865, those formerly enslaved on Burns Meaher’s plantation joined the others in the area north of Mobile known as Plateau. They hoped to return to Africa and their families but were unable to do so for lack of money and thus decided to remain where they were, albeit on their own terms. In 1866, they established the settlement of African Town as the first town founded and continuously occupied and controlled by blacks in the United States.

For more information, consider the Sylvia Anna Diouf’s widely acclaimed book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama. Diouf painstakingly collects rare photographs, eyewitness accounts, interviews with former slaves, slavers, and other previously unpublished primary source material, to tell the stories of these remarkable settlers, and reconstruct the thread of narrative between their lives in Africa and their forced emigration to the United States.