Cudjoe Lewis


Excitement about how terrific John Jeremiah Sullivan is reached me long ago but it took me awhile to get to this book and believe it for myself.  Now I’m a JJS belieber.

Enjoyed the book on a plane, a fine setting in all regards but one:

after you’ve finished reading the essay “Unknown Bards” – about certain mysterious bluesmen whose lives are vanished to history except for one recording – you have no way of listening to any of the songs mentioned, let alone the entire album Pre-War Revenants.

The collection’s only delimiting criteria would be that nothing biographical could be known regarding any of the artists involved, and that every recording must be phenomenal, in a sense almost strict: something that happened once in front of a microphone and can never be imitated, merely reexperienced.

On return to California a listening party was organized (thanks to Chennai office).

While listening to this amazing thing the question came up of: whether any people were alive in the American South at the time of these recordings (1910-1940, let’s say) who were born in Africa and brought over to the United States as slaves.

My expensive education paid off because I knew that the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1808, the first year that the U. S. Constitution allowed it to be abolished.   (Never hurts to remind your strict constructionists how much of what ‘the framers intended’ was “being allowed to own people.”  See Article 1, Section 9).

BUT the story’s more interesting.


Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, or Cudjo Lewis (ca. 1840 – 1935), is considered the last person born on African soil to have been enslaved in the United States when slavery was still lawful.

Together with more than a hundred other captured Africans, he was brought on the ship Clotilde to Mobile, Alabama, in the United States in 1860 during an illegal slave-trading venture.

Cudjoe was the longest-lived survivor of all those who were brought aboard the Clotilde. He was believed to be the last slave born in Africa and brought to the United States by the transatlantic slave trade. Before he died, he gave several interviews on his experiences, including one to the writer Zora Neale Hurston. During that interview in 1928, Hurston made a short film of Cudjoe, the only moving image that exists in the Western hemisphere of an African transported through the transatlantic slave trade.

Hurston named the last eight of the Clothilde’s survivors as: “Abache (Clara Turner), Monachee (Kitty Cooper), Shamber, Kanko (who married Jim Dennison), Zooma (of Togo Tribe), Polute, Cudjo, and Orsey, or Orsta Keeby. Cudjo is the only one alive at present, a dignified, lovable, intelligent man.”

He died in 1935 at the age of 94, in Plateau (Africa Town), Alabama.

Could explore this forever.  Was he named after this man?*

The Library of Congress has audio recordings of slave interviews.

* alert reader “DS” calls my attention to a more likely explanation: Lewis was born on a Monday

One Comment on “Cudjoe Lewis”

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