Cudjo Lewis: The Last Survivor of the Last Slave Ship, But Not The Last Slave…

Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution (1787) stipulated that the slave trade could not be interfered with for the next twenty years. Only beginning in January 1, 1808, could laws become effective to end it. The Constitution did not, however, require Congress to ban it.

Nevertheless in 1807 the United States took steps to end the international slave trade officially with the U.S. Slave Trade Act, specifying that, as of January 1, 1808 it would be illegal to import into the United States “negroes, mulattos, or persons of color” as slaves. However, if it turned out that Africans did reach the United States illegally, they could still be sold and enslaved. Moreover, the Act did nothing to prohibit slavery already in place.

[Even worse, the effort to end the slave trade – seemingly so progressive on its surface, created even more of a horror story for enslaved women. Now the only legal [sic] way owners had to increase their number of slaves was either by enforced “mating” of their slaves, or by enforced mating with their slaves. Not only were women of child-bearing age raped repeatedly, but infertile women were punished by being sold away from their families and friends. (Usually, buyers were unsuspecting, because they too would have wanted to use female slaves for forced reproduction. That this occurred frequently is attested to by the number of judicial cases brought by new owners for fraud in such circumstances.) (If you have the stomach, you can read more about the egregious practice of the rape of women slaves here.)]

So the slave trade and the increase of slaves already within the borders of the U.S. [read: rape of enslaved women helpless to resist] continued. Tougher laws against importation were enacted, but with small penalties and without much enforcement. In 1850, the South even tried to get international slave trading re-opened. They did not succeed, but illegal importation did increase between 1850 and 1860.

Location of Benin

Location of Benin

In 1860, the schooner Clotilda, carrying between 110 and 116 captives from Benin and Nigeria landed in Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda is believed to have been the last slave ship to bring slaves to the United States. (Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, sent the Clotilda to Africa on a bet that he could “bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.” He of course won the bet.)

Cudjo Lewis from Benin arrived as a slave on that vessel, and was one of 32 slaves who ended up on Meaher’s estate. Freed in 1865, he became a leader of a group of Clotilda veterans in Mobile. They started their own community they named African Town with the goal of preserving African traditions. Lewis outlived his fellow Clotilda companions, dying on July 26, 1935 at the estimated age of 94.

Cudjo Lewis

Cudjo Lewis, also known by his African name of Kazoola

Up until World War II, African Town remained a rather distinct community in Mobile County. Now called AfricaTown, it is still home to the descendants of the men and women from the Clotilda. It was incorporated into the city of Mobile in 1948. As of December 2012, it was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Parks Service.



Review of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” by David Von Drehle

Von Drehle argues that 1862 was the most important year in the history of our nation, and he does so quite persuasively.

Rooftop Lincoln Rise to Greatness

Many of Lincoln’s tasks after the onset of the Civil War involved appeasement: he had to make sure the touchy border states remained in the Union (ergo he could not speak out too forcefully for emancipation); he had to make sure Britain and France did not join the war on the side of the South (thus his capitulation on the so-called “Trent Affair”) and he had to ensure that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney (author of the notorious Dred Scott decision declaring that African Americans could never be considered U.S. citizens) did not thwart his military plans to protect the North by using what could be considered extra-Constitutional actions. Moreover, the Army, which numbered only 16,000 men before the war (and these men were spread out all over the continent), had been rapidly increased to nearly five times that number. But none of them knew how to fight! Nor did most of the men picked to lead them. Somehow Lincoln had to figure out which of these novices had the makings of generals who could lead the North to victory.

Needless to say, it took Lincoln a while to accomplish this last, especially since he had to take great care not to alienate all the supporters (among whom numbered many soldiers) of the infuriating and perhaps even treasonous George McClellan. But Lincoln was one of the few men in a leadership position at the time who was willing and able to take the long view, and to keep his eye on the prize, which was preservation of the Union.

Excerpt of Letter to Horace Greeley printed August 22, 1862

Excerpt of Letter to Horace Greeley printed August 22, 1862

Why was this so important? Lincoln believed the American nation, with its bestowal of power upon ordinary people to elect its government (i.e., the doctrine of self government), was “absolutely and eternally right.” Furthermore, he could conceive of no government more noble than one “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He could find no moral right in the despotism of men not only governing themselves but governing other men. But he knew a critical factor determining the success of this experiment was assurance to the citizenry that losing voters would not and could not destroy the system just because they lost. Like a marriage, any union won’t work when the parties say “I’m getting a divorce” every time something doesn’t go their way. Compromise is the key to maintaining any union worth having, and Lincoln believed firmly that the United States – this great experiment – should not perish from the earth.

[And yes, there was a slight problem with the reality of the nation as it was then constituted not living up to the promise, since some men were more equal than other men, and certainly more equal than women.] Lincoln begged his audience, in an 1858 debate against Stephen Douglas:

Now, my countrymen . . . if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me—take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever—but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. … I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity—the Declaration of American Independence.”

Lincoln intended to help the nation “heed these sacred principles.” But he could not do it unless the “nation so conceived and so dedicated” were still in existence. This concern dictated all of his strategy, all of his decisions, all of his tactics, and it is this long-term vision that so many others in the government were unable to imagine.

They also were not nearly as savvy as Lincoln about realpolitik. Lincoln felt he couldn’t just get rid of Simon Cameron, his corrupt and incompetent Secretary of War, or he would create a dangerous enemy and hopelessly alienate Pennsylvanians; nor could he just get rid of Samuel Chase, whose over-the-top politicking for Lincoln’s job outraged everyone but Lincoln – he needed Chase’s financial prowess to raise the money to fight the war. Nor could Lincoln satisfy Congress by firing George McClellan, the do-nothing general who consistently snubbed, insulted, and disrespected Lincoln. McClellan was far too popular among the troops; Lincoln knew better than to lose the loyalty of the army. He could not even appease the abolitionists by outlawing slavery just yet – the preservation of the union had to take precedence.

Lincoln with McClellan at Antietam, 1862

Lincoln with McClellan at Antietam, 1862

Again and again, Lincoln was able to push aside and rise above personal snubs, Congressional pressure, embarrassment over his wife’s questionable friendships with Confederates, and all the rest, to save the Union. Lincoln said:

Perhaps I have too little [resentment], but I never thought it paid.”

This remarkable man had a remarkable year in 1862. As Drehle writes:

…when the first day of January [1863] came around again, Lincoln’s greatness was no longer raw. Even as he had redefined American society, he had invented the modern presidency. He had steered himself and the nation from its darkest New Year’s Day to its proudest, and in the process Lincoln had become the towering leader who forever looms over the rebirth of the American experiment.”

Evaluation: You have to admire the author for undertaking this book. As he observed in his Note on Sources, “the sheer volume of material, both primary and secondary… is so vast that dropping into the subject as a writer is like falling into the sea.” Yet he succeeds admirably, providing a month-by-month account of Lincoln’s life in 1862 that puts us right into the thick of the times with a welcome lack of turgidity and tedium. Obviously the author could not include everything; new students of Lincoln may want to start with a more comprehensive biography. But for those who know even the bare outlines of Lincoln’s life and the politics surrounding it, this book provides a lively and always-interesting focused look at one of the most important years in America’s history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2012

February 12, 1809 – Birth of President Lincoln – How Would He Have Fared in the Polls?

Although Lincoln’s reputation is currently quite elevated, he wasn’t so popular while in office. The caliber of insults leveled at him was shocking both in tone and intensity. As President Nixon noted at Lincoln’s birthday ceremony in 1974:

No President in history was more vilified during his time in the presidency than Lincoln.”

Upon Lincoln’s election, for example, the most esteemed orator in America, Edward Everett, wrote in his diary:

He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.”

[Two years later, Everett spoke right before Lincoln did at Gettysburg. No one remembers what Everett said.]

Lincoln was jeered at for his accent, his clothes, his voice, his story-telling, and his appearance, not to mention, most importantly and subject to the most vituperation, his policies. He was called imbecilic (per Edwin Stanton); idiotic, a coward, and a gorilla (per General McClellan), and newspapers in both the North and the South showed him no respect whatsoever. They condemned him as a traitor, a dictator, “Massa Linkums,” a weakling, pusillanimous, and a murderer.

It is only with his assassination that his popularity ascended.

And now, over 200 years later, he is our hero.


One must feel happy for the young man of thirty-one, who, profoundly depressed and even suicidal, made a confession to his friend Joshua Speed. Years later, in 1866, Speed recalled:

“He said to me that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived — and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day & generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for…”

Now, Lincoln’s likeness is everywhere: there are around 200 statues and sculptures of Lincoln in America, which amounts to almost one third of the more than 600 memorials and statues of American presidents. The number of books about him is legion. In fact, a stack of over 15,000 titles was erected in the lobby of the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, and reached some 34 feet in height.


He even, in 2013, won an Oscar….


Is a Slavery Reparations Case Practicable?

The House Girl by Tara Conklin is yet another novel that juxtaposes a contemporary story with a linked plotline from the past. It is a tricky balancing act for the author to ensure that both stories are of equal interest.


Lina Sparrow is a first year litigation associate in a high-powered New York City law firm. Although 24 and attractive, she doesn’t have much of a personal life, since her law firm career demands so much of her time. She still lives with her father, Oscar, who is a well-known artist.

Josephine Bell, seventeen in 1852 and serving as a house slave in Lynnhurst, Virginia, is also an artist. Her master, Missus Lu, sometimes allows her to paint with her in her studio. Now that Missus is “feeling poorly,” she even asks Josephine to help complete her own paintings, because her hand has become too unsteady.

As the story opens, Lina’s “mentor partner” at Clifton & Harp, Daniel Oliphant III, pulls her into a big new case brought by a wealthy African-American client, Ron Dresser. Dresser wants to sue for reparations on behalf of the ancestors of slaves, claiming that trillions of dollars in unpaid wages resulted in unjust enrichment for private companies benefiting from slave labor before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lina’s assignment is, per Dan, to “get ourselves a great lead plaintiff”:

I want something stirring, a new angle, something compelling. And don’t forget photogenic – these people will be on TV, they’ll be in the papers, they’ll be giving interviews. We need some great people, Lina, some great stories.”

The lawsuit provides an excuse for Lina to read about (and share with us) the history of slave exploitation of labor.

Thanks to her artist dad, Lina discovers the slave Josephine as a potential source for a “colorful” angle, if only she can find a descendant. A series of very unlikely and improbable developments enable her to learn many details that not only advance her case, but also allow her to locate the perfect plaintiff. Everything gets wrapped up in the end, but not neatly, and even somewhat bizarrely.

Discussion: In many ways Josephine’s story is infinitely more interesting than Lina’s, but I don’t have a sense of how historically realistic Josephine’s story may have been, nor how authentic her voice seems. On the other hand, Lina’s account of life in a top-ranked, competitive law firm rings very true. I laughed out loud at Lina’s comparison of law firm time to casino time, and at the way she thought of everything she did in six-minute intervals.

But some of the coincidences and dei ex machina in the story strained credulity. And some of Lina’s actions seemed markedly inconsistent with her character portrayal. Most perplexing to me, however, was the lawsuit that formed the backbone of the story.

I was surprised, maybe astounded even, that the lawsuit for reparations for unjust enrichment was defined as having an end point of 1865. In fact, prior to 1865, slavery was legal. After 1865, on the other hand, slavery continued in the South by surreptitious means, and it is then that companies truly could be culpable for unjust enrichment.

[See, for example, the Pulitzer Prize winning book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon who analyzes why blacks did not rise in American society after emancipation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Using extensive documentation, he demonstrates that long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments.

Here’s how it worked:

“By 1900,” Blackmon writes, “the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites.” Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located.


Blackmon charges that the desire to industrialize the South quickly was central to the restrictions put in place to suppress blacks, since these laws allowed for easy arrest and enslavement of workers. He avers:

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.”

But also, and quite importantly, “these bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.” Millions of blacks lived in a shadow of fear that they or their family members would be taken into this system. It had a profound effect on their behavior and self-esteem.

Blackmon insists that any consideration of the progress of blacks in the United States after the Civil War must acknowledge that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945.” (See the author’s website here for more information and documentation.)]

Thus the parents of today are the children of those who suffered under this egregious system, and so it can be expected that the repercussions continue to inform the expectations and attitudes of those who grew up with the stories and experiences derived from this very recent chapter in their family histories. And, one might argue, it could be expected that a serious reparations case would focus on this phenomenon (never mentioned in the book), for which plaintiffs would have a much better case than when slavery was not prohibited by the Constitution.

Evaluation: The intertwined stories of this book are definitely compelling, even if there are some plausibility issues, especially in the Lina sections of the book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013