Born Oluale Kossola, Cudjo Lewis was brought to the U.S. on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to the Americas, enslaved until the end of the Civil War, and spent the rest of his life living in Africatown, Alabama, where he was famously interviewed by the writer Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928.
Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola around 1841 in what is today the country of Benin in West Africa. He was from the Yoruba ethnic group that stretches from southwest Nigeria into Benin. He was the second child of his father, Oluale, and his second wife, Nyfond-lo-loo. He was one of twelve children by two different wives. As a child Kossola enjoyed playing the drums. As a young man he began training to become a soldier, which according to him was for defensive purposes only. He was initiated into the oro, the secret all-male Yoruba society in charge of protecting the community. At the time of his enslavement at the age of 19, he was in the process of courting a young woman.
Kossola was captured in February 1860, alongside 109 others in a raid by the Kingdom of Dahomey. While the trans-Atlantic slave trade was officially abolished, it still continued. The Dahomean King Ghezo, who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1856, signed a treaty with Great Britain in 1852 agreeing to stop his involvement in the slave trade. However, he continued the trade clandestinely.
Ghezo’s son Badohun, known as King Glele, attacked Kossola’s town because it refused to pay tribute to Dahomey. According to Kossola, he and the other slaves were marched to the coast and then held in the coastal port of Ouidah for three weeks in a slave pen, also known as a barracoon. He was sold for $100 to Timothy Meaher, a shipbuilder who owned lumber mills and cotton plantations in Alabama.
Meaher transported Kossola and the 109 other slaves on the Clotilda, a ship he built from his own wood and burned upon its return to hide the evidence. The journey to the port of Mobile, Alabama, took about forty-five days. Upon arrival, he was given to Meaher’s brother James. When James Meaher could not say “Kossola,” Kossola said to try instead “Cudjo,” meaning “born on a Monday.” Since his family name was Oluale, he adopted Lewis.
After the abolition of slavery following the Civil War, Lewis and other former slaves organized the community of Africantown in 1868. Lewis asked Timothy Meaher for land to build the community, and he refused. For several years they rented the land, and in 1872 Lewis purchased two acres from Meaher for $100.
After gaining his freedom, Lewis married Abile, a woman who had been on the slave ship Clotilda with him. They were together on James Meaher’s plantation. Together they had six children: Aleck, James, Pollee Dahoo, David, Cudjo, and Celia Es-bew-O-see).
Alongside most of his fellow shipmates, Lewis worked in Timothy Meaher’s lumberyards for one dollar a day. Additionally, he farmed to grow enough food for his family’s consumption. Lewis became a famed storyteller in Africantown, and told stories of his homeland back in Benin. He continued to practice Yoruba religious beliefs, while also joining Mobile’s Stone Street Baptist Church. In 1872, he helped found the Old Baptist Church (later renamed the Union Baptist Church).In November 1908, his beloved Abile died after forty years of marriage. Lewis continued to tell stories of his homeland, and was interviewed repeatedly by Zora Neale Hurston over the end of 1927 and the first few months of 1928. Lewis survived until 1935 when he died well into his nineties.
In 1959, a bust of Lewis was placed in front of Union Baptist Church, and in 1977 a bronze plaque was placed in Mobile’s Bienville Square to honor both Lewis and Africantown. In 2018, Zora Neale Hurston’s biography of Cudjo Lewis, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” was finally published. The book had been completed but rejected by publishers in 1931 due to its discussion of Africans’ involvement in the slave trade, as well as the use of African American vernacular. It was finally published in 2018, over 80 years after Lewis’ death, and 58 years after Hurston herself died.
Broughton, Timothy M.. "Lewis, Cudjo." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e2321 (accessed Thu Sep 05 12:06:00 EDT 2019).
David Glovsky and Elizabeth Timbs
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.