In the summer of 1860 more than fifty years after the United States legally abolished the international slave trade, 110 children, teenagers, and young adults from Benin and Nigeria were brought ashore in Alabama under cover of night. They were the last recorded group of Africans deported to the United States. Timothy Meaher, an established Mobile businessman, sent William Foster’s ship, the Clotilda to Ouidah in the Bight of Benin, on a bet that he could “bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.” He won the bet.
Did you know that once here they tried to get back home (they sued Meaher and they tried to go to Liberia with other freed peoples) but were unsuccessful so they banded together and lived, worked, and created community in what they called Africa Town. HistoryBuff.com says:
Members of the group petitioned the government to return them to Africa but were refused. Lacking other options, the group amazingly managed to stay together and settled near Mobile. They worked odd jobs, slowly accumulated some property, and finally set up an independent community they called Africatown. They elected leaders, set up a judiciary system, built a school for the town – all while continuing to observe their original cultural customs. They even bestowed both African and Christian names on their children and taught them the language of their homeland.
Eventually, they made a life here.One of the most prominent figures was Oluale Kossola because he lived long enough to tell his story to ethnographers like Zora Neale Hurston. Union Baptist Church even has a Cudjo Lewis Memorial Statue. According to AL.com:
The cement statues were destroyed by vandals in March 2011 after being donated in May 2007 by filmmakers Thomas Akodjinou of Benin and Felix Eklu of Togo.
In their place, Battles envisions, a monument similar to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., listing the names of everyone who was aboard the Clotilda.
“(Lewis) live longer than the rest of them and that’s why he got all the notoriety,” Clark said. “But there were a lot of other people who had leadership roles.”
Below is Zora Neal Hurston’s interview of one of the last survivors in 1928,Oluale Kossola (also called Cudjo Lewis):
Artists like Mr. Minter, she said, emerged “during that transition of coming out of sharecropping and doing a variety of jobs during Jim Crow.” Now, Dr. Hanna added, “that snapshot of life in often rural Alabama — that is leaving us.”
Yet the African Village receives no grants, no institutional support and practically no publicity. The folks who make a pilgrimage to the Minters’ little brick-faced house — maybe 300 in a year — come following rumors and stories and pictures on the Internet.
Still, to his mind, Mr. Minter is not alone. His yard show is a homeland for all 11 million Africans shipped off as chattel to the New World. And the pieces exist to tell their story over the centuries, from the griots and warriors of West Africa to the four girls murdered in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
History is all around us and we must pass this information down to our kids. If you’re ever in Mobile, Alabama take a heritage walk and share the history with your family.