With her best-known novel 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most popular African-American writers of her day. Sadly, her fortunes receded and she died in obscurity and poverty in 1960 aged 69. But another great African-American author, Alice Walker, restored her reputation in the 1970s. And an outstanding work of Hurston’s hidden from view for some 90 years has just been posthumously published.
This newly published work is based on research Hurston did in Alabama in 1927 and 1928 and is titled Barracoon – The Story of the Last Black Cargo. A barracoon was a pen where captive Africans were caged before they were shipped across the Atlantic to a life of slavery. Hurston’s book is built on interviews she undertook with a former slave, Cudjoe Lewis.
We’ll return to the extraordinary life story of Lewis shortly, but first let’s explore the entirely different but in its way equally striking life of Hurston. Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, the sixth of eight siblings. All four of her grandparents had been slaves.
When Hurston was three, her family went to live in Eatonville, Florida, notable as one of the earliest all-African-American towns in the States. Her father John became the town’s mayor as well as minister in its principal church, the Macedonia Missionary Baptist.
Hurston’s mother passed away in 1904 and her father remarried. Hurston was sent away to a Baptist school in Jacksonville, Florida but after a time her father stopped paying the fees. She now ended up working as a maid. But in 1917, Hurston managed to get a place at Morgan State University’s high school and went on to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C..
Hurston then won a scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University. She was the institution’s only black student. She graduated with a degree in anthropology at the age of 37 in 1928. But it was the field trips made in Alabama in 1927 and 1928 which gave her the material for Barracoon.
It was 1927 when Hurston first met Cudjoe Lewis and in a series of interviews learnt about his compelling and at times horrifying life story. Lewis had been born Oluale Kossola around 1841 in West Africa, in the country today known as Benin, which is just to the west of Nigeria. His family was from the Yoruba people.
By all accounts, Kossola thrived as a child in his ancestral homeland and in his teenage years he began to acquire the necessary skills to become a warrior. But his life was changed forever in 1860 when soldiers from Dahomey, led by their king Ghezo, attacked. Oluale’s town was brutally sacked and many were killed.
Kossola survived, only to be taken captive and marched to Ouidah on the Benin coast. There, along with many others, he was thrown into a barracoon, waiting for men from America or Europe to come and buy him as a slave and transport him across the Atlantic.
At this point, another character makes his entry into our story. Timothy Meaher was a ship’s captain and a plantation owner in Mobile, Alabama and in 1860 he accepted an extraordinary bet, one that most would think disgracefully inhumane. The bet was that he could transport a cargo of slaves from Africa without being apprehended by the authorities.
And he did need to evade the law. Although slavery had not yet been abolished in the U.S. in 1860, importing slaves had been illegal since 1808. But Meaher decided to defy the law in the pursuit of this bet. He spent $35,000 on a sailing vessel, the Clotilda, and put Captain William Foster in command. Meaher gave Foster $9,000 in gold to buy slaves and the captain set course for the west coast of Africa.
After three weeks in the barracoon, Kossola, along with 109 others, was bought by Foster as a slave. The 110 Africans were packed aboard the Clotilda. Naked and parched, they were stowed below deck for the grueling 45 days at sea it would take to make land in Alabama. The Clotilda reached America in July 1860.
The original plan had been to disembark the captive Africans away from Mobile for fear that the illegal act would be detected. Theoretically at least, they could have faced the death penalty for this criminal enterprise. And it seems the conspirators panicked since, after unloading their human cargo, they put the ship to the torch in a bid to hide the evidence of their wrongdoing.
Kossola, who had already lost his freedom, now lost his name and became Cudjoe Lewis, owned by Timothy Meaher’s brother James. James Meaher now put Lewis to work on a steamship and housed his slave beneath his own home. Then in April 1861, just months after Cudjoe’s arrival in the U.S., the Civil War erupted.
The Civil War eventually rumbled to a close in 1865 with the surrender of the last Confederate general in June. And the victory of the Unionists meant that slavery was abolished under the terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. After five years of enforced servitude, Lewis was a free man again.
Subsequently, Lewis, along with others who had been forcibly transported from Africa aboard the Clotilda, tried to raise the money to return to their native land. They were unable to do this, but they did raise enough to buy some land. Lewis himself saved $100 and bought two acres three miles from downtown Mobile.
Lewis’ land and other parcels around it came to be known as Africatown, which still exists today. And it was in Africatown in 1927 that Zora Neale Hurston met Cudjoe Lewis, by then the only known living former slave. Hurston also visited in 1928 when she spent more time with Lewis, who was by now in his late 80s.
With the material she’d collected, Hurston now wrote a book. It described the life experiences of Lewis, using his own words. But the author couldn’t find a publisher. One reason for this reluctance was the fact that she had transcribed Cudjoe’s words using his distinctive dialect.
Tracy Sherrod of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is the 2018 publisher of Neale’s book, described the position of publishers in the 1930s to National Public Radio. “They wanted to publish it, but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn’t written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so,” Sherrod explained.
After being hidden away for many decades in the archive of Howard University, where Hurston herself studied, this priceless manuscript has now seen the light of day. It’s a unique work of historical record, told in the words of the man who actually lived the experience. And the author had recorded Lewis’ story just in time – he died in 1935, aged about 95.