The descendants of Cudjo Lewis, the final survivor of the last slave ship to land in America, fight for respect and environmental justice.
By Nick Tabor
By Nick Tabor
On a sunny afternoon in April, Joe Womack drove me through the north end of Mobile, Alabama, past several chemical factories. We went down a highway hedged by tall yellow grass and slowed down in front of a power plant, where dark smoke was chuffing out of the highest tower. Womack parked beside a creek; the air as we stepped out smelled faintly noxious.
“This is called Hog Bayou,” he said with a sweep of his arm. He was wearing a Nike T-shirt and wraparound sunglasses. In the 19th century, the area was a dense forest, and the former slaves who lived there gave it that name, Womack said. “You could walk right across the street and kill a deer, kill a hog, catch some fish, and bring them back. You’d have food for a week.” Womack, I’d been told, was the best possible guide for a tour of the waterfront; his family has lived in the area for more than a century, and at age 67, he’s become both a shrewd activist and a repository of neighborhood history. “So according to folklore, this is where the African slave taught the American slave how to live. The Africans hadn’t been slaves for long, and they knew more about being free than being slaves.”
By “the Africans,” he meant the last known group of people brought here to be slaves, in 1860 from modern-day Benin. The slave trade had been illegal by then for half a century, but a Mobile businessman reportedly sponsored a voyage to Africa on a bet that he couldn’t pull it off without being caught. [Read an excerpt from Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 interview with the last living survivor here.] When the Africans were freed, just five years later, they still spoke minimal English and were far less acclimated to American society than native-born slaves. So they took refuge in this area north of town, which was marshy at the time, separated from the Mobile city limits by a swamp. They established an independent society — “the first continuously controlled by blacks, the only one run by Africans,” as the scholar Sylviane Diouf puts it in her 2007 book Dreams of Africa in Alabama — and shared their belongings, built one another’s homes, and governed according to tribal law. Many of their descendants still live there.
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Source: New York Magazine