I am always glad to see people showing interest in the story of the Clotilda, Africatown and Cudjo (Kazola or Kosolla) Lewis, so I was delighted to read Casey N. Cep’s lengthy review of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon” in the May 14 issue of the New Yorker. However, I feel that some explanation of Mobilians’ role in this story is needed.
In 1914 Miss Emma Langdon Roche (1878-1945) published the first account of the last slave ship to enter the United States, “Historic Sketches of the South.” She was the artist/writer daughter of a prominent white family here. She spent a great deal of time interviewing the people who had been illegally brought into South Alabama to be the slaves of several local men.
She recorded their folkways and her interviews with Kazola gave her their history. He had emerged as one of their leaders and spokesman, despite his accent, which was so heavy that later Zora Neale Hurston simply could not understand him. Miss Roche did and Hurston plagiarized her 1914 book in “Cudjoe’s Own Story of the last African Slaver” (1928), passing it off as her own. In 1931 she returned to Africatown, interviewed Lewis repeatedly over a three-month period and eventually came to understand his accent.
Those interviews served as the basis for “Barracoon,” which did not interest publishers when she completed it before World War II and was preserved with her other papers until Alice Walker revived her memory by getting “Barracoon” published this year.
In addition to Miss Roche’s pioneering work, scholars in Mobile have been collecting documents and photographs about Kazola and Africatown as have visitors, including Sylviane Diouf. The collections of the [Doy Leale] McCall [Rare Book and Manuscript] Library (formerly the University of South Alabama Archives) hold most of this, but other repositories in the area have material as well.
The current residents of Africatown and their friends and family across the country are trying to preserve their community’s heritage. However, telling Africatown’s story has always been an uphill battle. The community has never had much money or political power, but its efforts are beginning to show signs of success. Grants have been awarded and plans are afoot to build a welcome center. The community has attracted black organizations, principally church groups, to make pilgrimages to the site.
Mobile is a very friendly, conservative Southern city, but it knows how to keep its secrets. Both black and white Mobilians are quite good at this, but it does make telling this story more difficult. Thanks to local researchers such as Israel Lewis (a descendent of Kazola’s) and other academics we have the unearthed the material to tell the story. It is quite a tale, which I hope will be accurately told soon.
Michael Thomason, PhD