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PHOTO ESSAY

Africans in America

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Cudjo Lewis

Cudjo Lewis. Alabama Humanities Foundation.

Cudjo Lewis (1841-1935), whose African name was Kossola Oluale, grew up in what is now Benin and was sold into slavery in 1860 when he was 19 years old. Lewis was a member of the last known group of slaves to have been brought to the United States from Africa, more than fifty years after the North Atlantic slave trade had been abolished. Following his emancipation at the end of the Civil War, Lewis worked for the shipbuilder Timothy Meaher, the man who had smuggled him into the United States in the first place. In 1868, on land rented from Meaher, Lewis and a number of other former slaves built a self-governing community in Mobile, Alabama that they called African Town. Lewis was one of the leaders of African Town and grew to become one of its respected elders. He was esteemed for his integrity and was known for telling stories of his life in Africa and folktales that reinforced the values in which he believed so strongly.

Lewis belonged to a very small set of people who were brought to America as slaves and lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Despite incredible misfortune, Lewis was able to establish himself in a new country and construct a community whose ethos matched his own. His legacy survives in the continued recognition of African Town, now called Africatown, as an important source of African cultural history in the United States.

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