Wednesday 24 July 2019

Descendants from last US slave ship gather in Alabama

The Africans were illegally smuggled into Alabama for a bet.

Old Plateau Cemetery, the final resting place for many who spent their lives in Africatown (Julie Bennett/AP)
Old Plateau Cemetery, the final resting place for many who spent their lives in Africatown (Julie Bennett/AP)

By Jay Reeves, Associated Press

Descendants of the last Africans abducted and shipped to the United States into slavery will gather this weekend on the US Gulf Coast.

The event will be held on Saturday in Mobile, Alabama, at Africatown, a once-thriving community settled by freed blacks from Africa after the Civil War.

The area is now economically depressed with a dwindling population, and there are few remnants of the original settlers.

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Joycelyn Davis, a direct descendant of survivor Charlie Lewis (Julie Bennett/AP)

The Africans were illegally smuggled into Alabama for a bet in 1860 on board the Clotilda, decades after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed.

Some of the people settled on old plantation land after the war, purchasing property and establishing a society that included leaders and courts.

Relatives of the 110 people who were kidnapped in west Africa are organising the Spirit of Our Ancestors festival.

Five families were involved in the initial planning, and organiser Joycelyn Davis said interest mushroomed once word got out.

She said people who once were ashamed to say their ancestors were sold into slavery are finding new pride in their heritage that could breathe new life into Africatown.

“I am so proud to say I am a descendant. That wasn’t a word that I used maybe 10, 15 years ago,” said Davis, 42, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis.

“It was shameful as a child.”

Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, said historian Natalie S. Robertson.

The schooner Clotilda sailed from Mobile to what is now Benin in western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous, weeks-long voyage.

“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” said Robertson.

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile in 1860 and was quickly burned and scuttled in delta waters north of Mobile Bay.

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Homes line Richardson Drive in Africatown (Julie Bennett/AP)

The Africans spent the next five years as slaves, Robertson said, freed only after the Civil War ended.

Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, homes and vessels to purchase land from the Meaher family and settle Africatown.

Africatown’s peak population was estimated at more than 10,000. Today, lying about three  miles north of Mobile, the area has about 1,800 residents.

Meaher was charged with smuggling and faced a possible death penalty, but he was never prosecuted and his family remains prominent.

A state park in Mobile bears the family name and Meaher Avenue runs through Africatown.

However, few signs of the original residents of Africatown remain — just graves and a chimney from the home of Peter Lee, or Gumpa, who was appointed chief after its founding.

In front of a church founded by the freed slaves sits a bust of Cudjo Lewis, who was the last surviving African from the last slave ship voyage to America when he died in 1935.

PA Media

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