Historian discusses lives of last known U.S. slave ship passengers

Dr. Sylviane Diouf discussed the lives of Cudjo Lewis and his fellow passengers on the Clotilda during TROY's 2019 McPherson-Mitchell Lecture.

Dr. Sylviane Diouf discussed the lives of Cudjo Lewis and his fellow passengers on the Clotilda during TROY's 2019 McPherson-Mitchell Lecture.

The story of the Clotilda is about more than just the last known ship to bring slaves from Africa to the U.S. — it’s about a group of teenagers who built a life and a lasting community in a strange land.

Dr. Sylviane Diouf, an African Diaspora historian and author of the book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America,” discussed that story Monday at Troy University’s 2019 McPherson-Mitchell Lecture in Southern History.

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 with a shipment of 110 children, teenagers and young adults from Benin and Nigeria, more than 50 years after the U.S. banned the importation of slaves.

The ship captain, William Foster, had the Clotilda burned and sunk after the slaves were removed, in an effort to avoid detection and criminal charges.

“To me, what is crucial is the story of the people, and that started long before the Clotilda sailed to Mobile and long after she was torched,” Diouf said.

Diouf set out to document the Clotilda’s story about 14 years ago, comparing her work to that of a detective.

“You look for clues, piece them together and compare them with other documents,” she said. “I discovered things scattered all over, troughs of documents that had never been seen before, federal and state correspondences, letters, prison reports, affidavits and many other sources.”

Clotilda passengers lived into the 20th century, long enough to have their stories documented by contemporary sources, such as Emma Langdon Roche, a teacher who interviewed and photographed the last nine survivors.

Diouf cross referenced those interviews with the work done by famed author Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote an unpublished manuscript about the ship’s last survivor, Cudjo Lewis.

At first, the 110 people on board the ship worked as slaves on the plantation of Timothy Meaher, who financed the expedition.

“They formed a very cohesive community on the plantation with little contact with other groups,” Diouf said. “They spoke their language, continued to maintain their cultures and were mocked for that. Slavery was an awful, awful experience for everybody, but for the Africans who were in a foreign country on top of it, it was an unimaginably terrible experience. Cudjo said that every night they cried.”

After the Civil War, the Clotilda survivors eventually formed a community, now known as Africatown.

Diouf said this community reflected the strong bonds the Clotilda survivors had to their native land.

“One of Cudjo’s companions told Booker T. Washington, ‘I go back to Africa every night in my dreams,’” she said. “For the Clotilda passengers’ children, like Julia Allen, Africa became paradise. They were told Africa was a land of beauty and good people. When Jim Crowe Alabama became too much to handle, they could go there in their dreams. Naming their community African Town (as it was then known) was a clear way of saying who they were, how they wanted to remain and where they wanted to be.”

The descendants of the Clotilda have kept its survivors’ legacy alive —a legacy of perseverance, family and love.

“Cudjo and his companions went through a horrific ordeal, but they had a rich culture and faith, knew who they were and fought back,” Diouf said. “The most important part of this story is not what was done to them – there is no forgetting or glossing over what they went through – but we owe it to them to focus on what they did, the unity that helped them achieve a level of success. They created a world taking from American culture what they felt was essential for their survival and keeping their own culture. It’s a story of terrible hardship but also of perseverance in teenagers. Today, African Town, which is now Africatown, has endured.”

Diouf told the crowd at TROY’s Claudia Crosby Theater that recent efforts to discover the Clotilda wreckage are a needed step toward properly recognizing the survivors and their descendants.

“There is a lot to be done still,” she said.