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.
Cudjoe Lewis, Former Slave and Surivor of the Slave Ship Clotilda
The book describes the story of 110 young men, women and children from the Bight of Benin in West Africa brought illegally via the vessel Clotilda to Mobile, Alabama as slaves in 1860 (less than a year before the outbreak of the Civil War and 52 years since the abolition of the international slave trade in the United States).
The writer of this book Diouf points out the sad realization that we know little of this particular group today, although their story had been reported in many places, including by Zora Neale Hurston who wrote a book about the last of the survivors (Cudjoe Lewis) / Yet the manuscript survives intact in the Alain Locke Papers kept at Yale University although it has never been published.
Many important authorities have denied or disregarded the existence of this group of slaves, from President James Buchanan to WEB Du Bois in his Ph.D. dissertation (1895) published as THE SUPPRESSION OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE-TRADE, as well as a variety of major subsequent studies of the slave trade. And we would probably still know nothing about them if not for the extraordinary circumstance that despite five years of enslavement in the United States, they managed to remain together as a group, form a settlement called African Town in Alabama and continue to speak a common African language and preserve their legacy to pass it down to their children.
According to Diouf, they ran their settlement according to traditions they had brought with them from Africa under the leadership of someone who had formerly been of noble birth in Dahomey, named Gumpa. Most of them had been sold as prisoners of war by the Dahomeyan Army.
The survivors in Alabama remained together long enough to give interviews to whomever would listen in the hopes of making contact with those who had remained behind but they were never able to get back to Africa.
A long interview with Cudjo Lewis and his wife Abile was published in HARPER'S WEEKLY in 1887. They were written about again in 1903 in a long article in HARPER'S MONTHLY. Booker T. Washington paid them a visit in 1909 and Emma Langdon Roche published a book about them in 1914.
In the summer of 1928, Zora Neale Hurston spent two months interviewing Cudjoe Lewis, the last of the original group, for her book. Her last draft entitled BARRACOON was completed in 1931 but it never found a publisher.
Cudjoe was the last of the group to survive and died in 1935. Diouf's book includes a fascinating collection of photos and documents, all serving to substantiate that slavery was both real and compelling to its descendants well into the 20th century.