In the very memorable and stirring movie “Amistad,” which chronicles the true events surrounding the slave revolt that took place in 1839 aboard the slave ship La Amistad as it sailed from Cuba, there is one particularly profound and inspiring scene. Abolitionists working to secure the freedom of the 53 African captives go to the venerable, aged John Quincy Adams for help.
The son of John Adams, America’s second president, John Quincy Adams had by this time lived quite a full life. Lawyer, diplomat, United States senator, secretary of state, the nation’s sixth president: his list of accomplishments was second to none. But some of his most celebrated days came after he left the presidency. The only president to do so, he became a member of the House of Representatives after leaving the White House and served there until his death. While in Congress, he was a vocal and staunch antislavery advocate.
It would be John Quincy Adams who would eventually argue the Amistad Africans’ case successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. But for now, abolitionists representing the captives in lower court humbly yet persistently sought his advice on courtroom strategy.
A most capable lawyer, Adams was a firm believer that the side that won in the courtroom was usually the one that could tell the best story. So, emphatically, he asks the abolitionists: “What is the Africans’ S-T-O-R-Y?” In other words, what is their history? The abolitionists may know “what” the captives are (Africans), but do they know “who” they are? Do they know their story?
Stories are important. Whether it be an individual, an organization or a nation, our stories matter. They represent the essence and sum of who we are. In a city as old as Mobile, with its rich and varied history, you better believe there are some very compelling stories woven throughout the city’s more than 300 year history.
However, few are more compelling than that of Union Missionary Baptist Church and the story of those who founded it. Union Baptist is not the oldest African-American church in Mobile, Stone Street Baptist Church holds that honor. But the founders of Union Baptist Church are incredibly unique in history. Like those aboard the Amistad, the founders of Union Baptist Church were kidnapped and brought here from Africa against their will on the ship Clotilda. In fact, they are the last recorded slaves to be brought to America.
Unfortunately, unlike those on the Amistad, no great American hero such as John Quincy Adams would advocate for them and gain their freedom. Unlike the Amistad captives, funds would not be secured to provide them safe passage back to their African homeland. Union Baptist Church, then, stands as a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to overcome the trial by fire of tragedy and misfortune, and find within the ashes of disappointment the hope and courage to move forward.
In early January of this year, it was the telling of this story that Union Baptist Church member Joycelyn Davis and I started conferring about. The church will celebrate its 149th year on Sunday, Feb. 11, and with the observance taking place during Black History Month, we felt a column would be timely and worthwhile to share with the community at large.
With the recent discovery of what is believed to be the remains of the Clotilda, it appears that this year’s church celebration, and the overall story itself, will take on more profound meaning.
Union Baptist Church is located about three miles north of downtown Mobile in an area long known as Plateau. Now, however, the area is most fittingly referred to as Africatown. It has been given a historic designation, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, become part of the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, and in 2016 the Mobile City Council gave Bay Bridge Road, the road Union Baptist sits on, the honorary designation of Africatown Boulevard.
Union Baptist Church is the spiritual center of Africatown and Davis is proud to be an up-and-coming griot — a keeper and teller of the stories — for Union Baptist. She is learning under the church’s and Africatown’s longtime historian/storyteller, Lorna Gail Woods.
Davis told me Woods has for decades been an advocate for Africatown and a repository of the history of their community and place of worship. Fortunately, I had the extraordinary pleasure of being taken on a tour of Africatown by Woods and listening to her speak passionately about her community and church. She brought Africatown’s history alive.
She spoke of her ancestor Charlie Lewis, who had been brought over on the Clotilda. She spoke of his brother Cudjo (Kazoola) Lewis, the last surviving member of the 110 Africans brought to this strange new land against their will. She spoke of how they banded together. Of how, desperately longing for their homeland, they made a home — a community — for themselves and kept their customs and history alive.
According to Woods, Union Baptist Church epitomized the closeness and support found in Africatown. It was a school, community center, place of worship and place of refuge. The church even served as a communications center. Cudjo Lewis, she recalled, was the church bellringer, and she vividly remembers as a child how he could ring the church bell in such a way that you knew what happened in the community by the sound of the bell. The church was the lifeblood of the community.
When members of Union Baptist gather this Feb. 11, it is stories like these and many others that they will be coming together to keep alive.
In the movie “Amistad,” John Quincy Adams — as he stood before the justices of the Supreme Court, appealing to them to look to the creed of liberty and freedom held by America’s ancestors to find the inspiration and courage to free the Amistad Africans — declared, “Who we are is who we were.”
Stories matter. And for members of Union Baptist Church, their story should forever give them, and us, cause to hope, endure and succeed.