Officials of the Alabama Historical Commission said Wednesday that they feel sure that they have discovered in the Mobile River the remains of the last slave ship to bring slaves into the U.S.
The Clotilda sailed to West Africa in 1858 and brought back as slaves 110 Africans, over 50 years after the Act of Congress prohibiting the slave trade. The ship was a privateer owned by a Mobile, Alabama shipbuilder and slave owner Tim Meaher. They worked on Meaher’s plantation and later settled in a community they called Africatown, in Mobile County.
“We are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship’s name on it, but the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda,” maritime archeologist Dr. James Delgado, who led the project for the Commission, told CBS News.
Most of the Africans abducted on the Clotilda worked on Meaher’s plantation and later settled in a community they called Africatown, in Mobile County.
“Finding the Clotilda represents the final nautical bookend to one of the most horrific periods in American and world history,” Kamau Sadiki, a member of the Slave Wrecks Project team that confirmed the identity of the Clotilda, said in a press release. “It is my hope that this discovery brings a comforting peace to the Africatown descendants and begins a process of genuine community and memory restoration.”
In keeping with that last sentiment, we republish now the recollections of the last descendent of one of the Africans kidnapped and transported by the Clotilda. It is the transcript of an oral history interview by the Mobile Public Library and published in the April 2005 issue of Mobile Bay.
Legacy of a Peculiar Institution
By Chris McFadyen // Originally published in the April 2005 issue of Mobile Bay
Story has it that Mobile shipbuilder and riverboat captain Tim Meaher was out on the wharves ragging the boys one day in the fall of war-charged ’58, feeling mean and rangy, deploring the federal revenue cullers that were patrolling the bay.
It was a vicious season for adventure, that fall 147 years ago. The port of Mobile was a unique flash point for the issues of slavery and national expansionism.
“General” William Walker was in town mustering his second coven expedition to re-conquer Nicaragua, plotting a Caribbean pro-slavery empire. Out to save Central America from foreign domination (British), and to spread some peculiar American dreams, a shipload of “Filibusters” had sallied forth from Mobile the year before, only to be intercepted by a Yankee cutter and turned back at San Juan de None.
Doubtless, outrage over that federal intervention took up a good deal of the conversation of Captain Tim and the boys, as it did the debates in Congress much of that year.
But, far from feeling intimidated, Tim (a seasoned trafficker in the illegal slave trade) up and proposes he’ll b’god, underwrite a slaver to bust through the same blockade patrolling for the filibusters. Whiskey and wagers were quickly exchanged. Up the Union!
November 9 the following thinly veiled trade notice in the Mobile Register attracted the enterprisers’ interest:
“From the west coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21st. The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory. The King of Dahomey was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece at Whydah. Immense numbers of negroes were collecting along the coast for export.”
Immediately, Meaher had his Captain john Foster hell off on the Clotilde — a ship, like a number Meaher built, designed for its elusive speed. (That same fall another Meaher handiwork, the Susan, was used to smuggle the Walker expedition of Nicaraguan adventurers.)
Barely escaping a double-cross by the Dahomeyan skull crushers, Foster procured at Whydah around 130 inland blacks, most from the agrarian tribe of Tarkars.
Those Tarkars were to be one of the last shipload of slaves smuggled into the United States.
“You Do Not Belong to Me Now!”
Half the shipment was split between Tim Meaher’s home, sawmill and shipyard on Telegraph Road, and his brother Bum’s plantation in Clark County. After the war, many of those in Clark County rejoined those at Tim Meaher’s place.
The Tarkars worked dollar-a-week in the mills, rented from Meaher, and saved toward their single-minded dream of resettlement in their native land. That failing, one day a tribal elder, Kazooma (Cudjo Lewis), approached Tim Meaher and asked that the Tarkars be granted land upon which to build an African town. [Emma Langdon Roche, “Historic Sketches of the South”] Captain Tim, in his biblical Maine Yankee seaman’s voice, is said to have replied, “Thou fool! Thinkest thou I will give you property upon property? You do not belong to me now!”
The Tarkars continued renting or bought outright “without consideration” from the Meahers, and Africatown nevertheless became a cultural reality-a small tribal, agrarian community, isolated along the river between Three Mile Creek and the Chickasabogue River, unique in the history of this county’s peculiar institutions.
Much of that uniqueness has passed, along with the passing of the original Tarkars
Eva Allen Jones, however, remembered quite well. Mrs. Jones, who died in 1993, was known by the people of Plateau as “Momma Eva” — a title suggesting not cabin servility but honest matriarchal esteem. She nurtured the children of Plateau for over 50 years and was, as was her father, an unofficial figurehead m a community ripe with history. Her father, Poulee Allen (brother of Cudjo Lewis), was one of the Tarkar tribal elders.
The following are some verbatim transcripts of Momma Eva’s accounts, taken from an oral history interview I taped in 1978 for the Special Collections Department of the Mobile Public Library.
“We lived in an old fashioned, five-room home with a brick fireplace. Kerosene lamps. Cooked with wood. Ten of us. Seven girls, three boys….Washed dishes, sweep yards, bring in wood, pump water….
“What we picked up of the African talk, we got at home. At the school, they thought that was funny. We talked it some at home. But our people learned English real quick after they got here. They didn’t speak that to everybody. When they met together they would talk that African language to each other…. They called it just ‘African’ language.
“My grandmother was brought over and so was my father, when he was a teenager. They would talk about Africa around the dinner table. I’m sorry I didn’t learn to speak it all myself….
A Tradition of Edenic Africa
“No, I didn’t hear my father tell about being brought over. But 1 did hear them say many times that they did not want to leave their home. Say it was wonderful and they did not. They stole them and brought them here as slaves against their will and every one of them when they died here, their last words were they wanted to go back home. They say it was good there. Say, like we plant greens here, they didn’t have to plant that but once. They plant those things, like mustard greens, you could get leaves off them to cook just like these trees here and you didn’t have to keep planting them over again. Cause it’s warm there all the time….
”I seen them sit down and shed tears. I see my father and uncle Cudjo weep and shed tears talking about going home. Talk about how fruit and such never did give out. Bananas, coconuts and everything. They didn’t ever give out, those things…. they didn’t want us to be worried about that’
“But they all made it good here. Built their own homes. They got along fairly well after they got here, but they had to work real hard, because when they got here [Plateau] there weren’t nothing but woods….
“Yes, Tim Meaher. He was the one…. They all worked as field hands….No, they didn’t talk much about those days. I guess they didn’t want us to be worried about that….
“They came to Plateau in 1868. There was Ossie Keeby, Cudjo Lewis, Peter Lee, Tony Thomas, Charley Lewis, Kaie Cooler, Disa Brunson, Kazooma Leviston, Willard Wheeler, Mickey Giggins. They been to my house many a time. And they were all African, and they get in there and start talking that African, I wouldn’t know. That’s why we didn’t \cam because we’d laugh ourselves. Cause we didn’t know what they were saying. They didn’t make us talk it. There’s only a few things I know to say in African. An apron, you put on, is bon-tee. And my name in African, they would have an African name for us, and my name was Jo-ko. But we didn’t recognize those names. We didn’t want kids laughing at us for calling those names. But in the homes we had our names and they’d call ‘Jo-ko’ and they never call me Eva.
Tribal Answers to Community Problems
“Sometimes Cudjo, sometimes my daddy [would act as leader.] They was the two older ones. Charley Lewis was another older one, they called him Big Poppa. When there was trouble, everybody get together and sing and pray and try to comfort each other. Whatever was said was said in African. Get together in one of the houses….
“One time our cow got out and ate some of Ossie Keeby’s plants, what he had to set out. My daddy was sorry, and we was all crying they went and met in the house. Got most of the Africans and went to singing and praying and getting on their knees praying, and the next two weeks them plants grew back and Uncle Keeby set them out.
Flourishing Agrarian Roots
“Parch corn. When ripe, pull most of the shuck off and put in the fire and let it roast. Leave about three layers of the shuck on there. And potatoes, they just take a shovel and push them ashes back, put the potatoes in there and just cover them back up. That’s the way them African folks cooked most of the time. Especially when it was real cold. You wouldn’t have to get up and go in the kitchen to cook.
“And them big old fireplaces. I know you haven’t seen them. Have big fireplace with hooks up there and hang them black iron pots up there with the greens and the peas in it and they be cooking, with the potatoes roasting in the ashes. Peanuts, pull the ashes back, put them in there ….
“My mother didn’t cook like my father cooked. He cooked most of the time…. And he did the growing too. You better believe it. Big gardens, knew how to grow everything. Herbs, roots. Knew how to get herbs in the woods. Had something for every complaint. If you had a bad cold, they had a tea out in the woods I don’t sec now, my daddy used to keep it. They called it ‘life everlasting tea.’
“My daddy had a long row of beehives. He’d rob them bees, and we had honey all the time. Keep big jugs of honey. Make a big pot of that old life everlasting tea and everybody have a big cup of that and sweet with honey. Next day or two you didn’t have no cold.
“You had a fever, a hot fever you couldn’t break. l know you seen in the yard, you don’t see much now, what they call a yellow top weed. Take that, make a cup of tea, your fever was gone.
“They all knew about them things. They’d all gather that stuff, and if one give out they’d go to another and borrow some….
“For Enjoyment, the House of Prayer”
“You didn’t steal and didn’t lie. Them old people pray day and night for their children. I was carefully reared. My father was a minister of the Baptist Church. He earned us to church.
“First called the Old Baptist Church, on the highway, and now the Union Baptist. Went from a brush arbor m 1903 when they got their first minister, Henry Watson. He baptized me in 1906. You sec that Three Mile Creek down there? l was baptized on that side, down in that river. Not all the African, but most of them were from union Baptist Church….
“I don’t know of no other place they went for enjoyment but the house of prayer. They’d have service there every Wednesday night, every Friday night, and every Sunday night. On Sunday morning, 4 o’clock we went to prayer meeting, it was black dark. We stayed there until the sunrise. Called that sunrise meeting. After sunrise, we came back home, ate our breakfast and 9 o’clock we went to Sunday school. We stay until the 11 o’clock service, and after that was over, we went home and ate our dinner. At 3 o’clock that bell ring, we went back to church. Went home, ate our supper, at 7 o’clock we was right back in church…. Now, if there was one thing we did go to, that was Mardi Gras. They’d take us to Mardi Gras. Everybody that had a horse and wagon’d carry as many as they could and them that didn’t have wagons they’d put their foot in that road and they’d walk. Down St. Joseph Street. Saw the parade, bought them a nickel bag of peanuts and come back home.
“I don’t care what they say. I enjoyed myself. They didn’t have all this devilment and hoorah and all that….
A Harvest of Memories
“We went to school in Plateau on Center Street in a building called the Boomer’s Union Hall. There was two teachers, one lady and a man, for all the grades. You didn’t have a lot of books like you have now: You had you an old cornbread tablet, old rough paper, and then you had a slate and a slate pencil. ABC cards for the little fellows and the blue-back spellers for the big kids….
“I didn’t finish school. I went to work medicine for the boss man what my daddy was working for, to nurse little children. I enjoyed that. And took in sewing, ever since I was 11. Nearly every wedding dress was made around here, I made it. I took in ironing. I could wash. I could sew, crochet things. My mother taught me how to work. She took in sewing.
“My daddy, he worked for Magazine Hardwood. Stacked lumber….
“He come home, he’d work in his garden. About two or three acres he had.
“They didn’t have too much of that selling then. Anybody didn’t have and you had, they’d come and gel. That’s what they’d raise it for. Pear trees, plum trees, apple trees, scuppernong arbors, grape arbors, fig trees, peanuts, watermelons, cantaloupes, bananas, everything. Feed the community. They relied on those African folks. They all work together. Everybody act like one family….
“I’d help Daddy in the garden in the evenings. Momma’d say, ‘Supper’s ready,’ and Daddy’d say, ‘Tell Momma I can eat by lamp light, but I can’t do this planting by lamplight.’ And he’d stay out there till seven or eight, and I’d stay with him … Lord, Jesus, that’s the best life I ever lived. Jesus, I loved it.”