Curiosity is a seed. What it spawns can stir a whole community.
“I contacted Union Missionary Baptist Church and asked if they had plans for replacing the statue of Cudjo Lewis. They put me in touch with this trustee, Lister Portis, and I’m sure at first he thought I was crazy,” April Livingston said.
A sculptor and art instructor at the University of Mobile, Livingston offered her services to revive a singular tale. Founded by the last shipload of imported African slaves to the United States, the church near the foot of the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge in Plateau lost a bust of its most famous member a dozen years ago.
“It was stolen in 2002 and found in a Daphne ditch three weeks later. They have pictures of it being hosed off in the back of a truck and then it got lost again. I’ve talked to a few people that have ideas but most everybody believes it was scrapped,” Livingston said.
In 1859, Mobilian Timothy Meaher wagered another man he could successfully defy the U.S.’s 50-year-old prohibition on the importation of slaves. Meaher sent his schooner Clotilda, under guidance of Captain William Foster, to West Africa to purchase the clandestine cargo.
Cudjo Kazoola Lewis was not yet 20 years old when he was enslaved and packed into a cargo hold with more than 100 other men, women and children. Once on the northern Gulf Coast in 1860, they slipped into a darkened Mobile Bay.
Meaher’s grandson Augustine Meaher Jr. told a Southern Courier reporter in 1967 how they played hide-and-seek with the illegal human cargo. The captives were moved to a Mt. Vernon plantation, then upriver to another spot, then to brother Byrnes Meaher’s plantation near Malcolm.
Some stories insist a few of the captives were sold. Augustine Meaher Jr. said they were only rented.
“Slave prices were too high. It cost as much as $2,000 for a field hand and $5,000 for a butler. You could get a cow for $2 then,” Meaher told the Courier.
Though authorities caught up with Timothy Meaher and others, prosecution was interrupted by the Civil War. Eventually 30 of the African-born captives settled onto the Meahers’ land near Magazine Point in Plateau where they worked at the Meaher sawmill and shipping docks.
Though their plans to return to Africa never materialized, they managed to create a community awash in the language and ways of their homeland. They adopted local religion and founded a church in 1872 which became Union Missionary Baptist.
In 1928, Lewis told a visiting Zora Neale Hurston about Africa, his capture, the journey and life in Africatown. She even captured him on motion picture film for a few brief moments, the only known footage of an African-born slave.
When Lewis passed away in 1935 he was the lone Clotilda survivor. Though an accident ended his career of labor at age 62, he remained caretaker at the nearby church until near his death.
In 1959, Union Baptist commemorated the centennial of its community origins. They sank a symbolic steel shaft 100 feet into the earth in front of the church. The Progressive League of Africatown erected a bronze bust of Lewis fashioned by Henry Williams, the sculpture stolen in 2002.
Livingston’s replacement work is on track. She decided against copying the wooden carving Williams employed in 1959, a bust currently in the History Museum of Mobile.
“The people at the church said they would be happy for me to just make a new one, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m working off of photographs from the Overbey collection at South Alabama. There are a lot of them online,” Livingston said.
The Hurston film has also proved vital since Livingston had no photos of Lewis’ profile. For instance, she discovered through the film that his earlobes were connected.
When the clay version is finished, Livingston will take it to Fairhope Foundry for wax copies to be made. Those will be driven to Sculpture Trails Outdoor Museum and Foundry in Solsberry, Indiana, to be cast in iron.
Between clay, materials, iron, tools, gasoline for going up and back to Indiana and the time Livingston has put into this, it won’t be cheap. She has started a GoFundMe page for the project.
“We’re already a fifth of the way there and I’m excited about that. I’m a bit rushed because I have to have this done by July 8 since I’m leaving then for Indiana, but I have a lot of faith it will work out,” Livingston said.
The Hoosier State pour is critical. If all goes well, the new bust will be ready in September.
Like a visiting Belgian artist who wrote in disbelief at the neglect of the Africatown site, Livingston feels the saga is undervalued. She is aware the great grandchildren of slaves still live among us.
“I just find the whole thing amazing. I grew up off Navco Road and didn’t know anything about Africatown. When I started looking into the history it was like ‘Whoa,’ not only were these people plucked out of their native land, taken under force and put off into the wilderness, but they survived and created one of the most unique African-American communities in the United States. I think it definitely deserves some type of commemoration,” Livingston said.