Cudjo Lewis, the last U.S. slave ship survivor from Benin who founded Africatown

Cudjo Lewis and his grandchildren

The story of the last illegal shipment of 110 slaves to the United States from the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) in 1860 is widely known, but the account of the survivors was unavailable until May 8, 2018.

Thanks to a resurfaced 1931 interview with the last survivor of the slave ship Clotilde, Cudjo Lewis, which was published after 87 years by American publishers HarperCollins.

Cudjo Lewis

95-year-old Lewis told his story to African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was a known Harlem Renaissance figure and gained popularity for the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

However, the manuscript including other works of hers was rejected by publishers following a public fallout. She was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy.

Hurston was later exonerated because she was out of the country when the crime was committed; however, her vindication came too late as she had died alone and poor in 1960. She was also buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon, The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is one of Hurston’s unpublished non-fiction books which she wrote after she visited Plateau, Alabama, in 1927 to interview Cudjo Lewis.

He gave a firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and enslavement, over 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States. Hurston documented Lewis’s story in his dialect, just as he told it.

Lewis was born as Kossola or Oluale Kossola in what is now known as Benin around the 1840s. His father was named Oluwale and his mother Fondlolu. He had five siblings and twelve half-siblings from his father’s other two wives.

He was taken prisoner in 1860 by the Dahomey army as part of a slave raid and was sent to the slave port of Ouidah along with other captives. They were sold to Captain William Foster of the Clotilde, a ship based in Mobile, Alabama, and owned by businessman Timothy Meaher.

The owner is reported to have bet a friend that he could smuggle in a group of slaves from Africa aboard the ship.

About 120 of them were bundled onto the ship and brought to Alabama despite the outlaw of slave trade in 1807. To avoid detection, they snuck the slaves into Alabama at night and hid them in a swamp for several days.

“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama,” Lewis told Hurston.

They burned the 86-foot sailboat on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to hide their crime following a tip-off to the authorities of their activities. They were cleared of charges of illegal possession of captives as the slaves and evidence were not found.

The remains of the boat were reported to have been discovered by a journalist in January 2018.

The incident happened months before the 1861 civil war and Lewis, together with the other slaves, were dispersed and hidden by Meaher, his family and associates. Lewis was bought by James Meaher, brother of the businessman, and he worked as a deckhand on a steamer.

“We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say,” he told Hurston.

Lewis chose to be called Cudjo, as Kossola was difficult for Meaher to mention. Cudjo is a West African name given to boys born on Monday. Historian Sylviane Diouf believes the surname Lewis was a corruption of his father’s name Oluwale.

He worked at the Meaher shipyard with other slaves through to the end of the Civil War in 1865 when the confederate army surrendered. Lewis said they didn’t know about the war and a few days after it was over, a group of Union soldiers stopped by where they were working and told them they were free.

He told Hurston about his frustration following his discovery that the promise of “forty acres and a mule” to enslaved Africans after the emancipation was not fulfilled by the government.

The group worked in lumber mills and sold produce to raise money to be able to return to Africa, yet they were unsuccessful. An attempt to get their former captor to offer them land also proved futile.

They continued to raise money and later in 1872, Lewis and a group of 31 other freed people bought a land near the state capital Mobile. Lewis bought about two acres of land for $100 in the Plateau area which they called Africatown.

The group developed Africatown into a community of people with a shared African background. They appointed leaders and built a church, a school, and a cemetery.

The freed slaves at Africatown

Historian Diouf wrote that: “Black towns were safe havens from racism, but African Town was a refuge from Americans.”

Lewis converted to Christianity in 1869 and joined a Baptist church. He was married to another Clotilde survivor, Abile (Celia) in 1880 and they had six children. He outlived his family as his wife died in 1905.

He worked as a farmer and labourer until 1902 when he was injured in an accident. He then worked as a sexton in the Baptist Church.

As the last slave ship survivor, Cudjo Lewis gained national fame after rounds of interviews and stories were written about him. He died on July 17, 1935, and was buried at the Plateau Cemetery in Africatown.

Grave of Cudjo Lewis

This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on

Meet the homeless 8-yr-old Nigerian chess champ in NYC everyone is talking about

Tanitoluwa Adewumi with his New York State chess championship trophy

It took third grader Tanitoluwa Adewumi a little over a year to learn to play chess and become the New York State Primary Chess Champion (Top Players K – 3rd Grade) after debuting at the New York State chess championship this month.

Tani, as he is affectionately called, and his older brother and parents arrived in the United States after they escaped Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in 2017, and have never looked back as they show resilience in their new life as refugees and through their immigration hearings to stay in the country legally.

Their story, which is one of the many experiences of African immigrants, was made known to the public by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who visited them in a homeless shelter in Manhattan where they lived.

“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” said Tani who has won over half a dozen trophies in the few months he started playing chess with the help of a part-time chess teacher at his local elementary school, P.S. 116, who taught his class how to play.

Tami’s interest in joining the chess club forced his mother, Oluwatoyin Adewumi who is preparing to become a home health aide, to get him enrolled after explaining to the programme’s patron, Russell Makofsky, about their financial woes. Tami’s fees were waived by Makofsky and he won in his first tournament last year with the lowest rating of 105.

With a current rating of 1587 nearing that of the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen who stands at 2845, Tami is touted to succeed despite the three-hour free practice sessions he attends in Harlem every Saturday and regular practice on his father’s laptop every evening.

Tani, as he’s known, carrying his chess trophy home from school, accompanied by his mother and brother. CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

“One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources. I’ve never seen it,” said Makofsky. His chess teacher Shawn Martinez also said, “He is so driven. He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”

“Tani has an aggressive style of play, and in the state tournament the coaches, watching from the sidelines, were shocked when he sacrificed a bishop for a lowly pawn. Alarmed, they fed the move into a computer and it agreed with Tani, recognizing that the gambit would improve his position several moves later,” writes Nicholas Kristof in his NYT column.

The principal of Tani’s school Jane Hsu said the whiz kid is “an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person.” His parents are supportive despite being new to the game.

Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, works two jobs as a licensed real estate salesman and drives an Uber by renting cars. Mr Adewumi is awaiting the family’s asylum request as their next immigration hearing is scheduled for August.

“The U.S. is a dream country. Thank God I live in the greatest city in the world, which is New York, New York,” he told Kristof after acknowledging that his son’s talents would have died in Nigeria if they had stayed.

Tani’s parents said he has faced his fair share of discrimination including his classmates teasing him for being poor. However, he continues to practice chess every evening as he prepares for the elementary national championship in May.

The story of Tanitoluwa Adewumi and his family has received a lot of attention from New York Times readers who have set up a GoFundMe account to support the family. In two days, the account created by Russell Makofsky has raised $74,724 of the $50,000 goal.

This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on

Black Mexicans finally get respect and recognition from Mexico

Afro-Mexicans — Photo:

Afro-Mexicans have been in the North American country since the 16th century but are now getting respect from the Mexican government which just created the Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas – National Institute of Indigenous Peoples – to recognize the rights of indigenous groups.

Black Mexicans were only recognised for the first time in 2015 when the Mexican government conducted its national survey and counted about 1.38 million people of African descent (about 1.2% of the country’s population).

The Afro-Mexicans have been invisible in the country for too long but with the new institute created by the Mexican Senate, Black Mexicans and other indigenous groups will be consulted by the government on matters affecting them.

It reflects “respect and autonomy for indigenous groups, and strengthening of their cultures and identities, rather than a mere focus on inequality and social exclusion as had previously taken place,” reports Atlanta Black Star.

In August 2018, the neglect faced by Black Mexicans was the focus of the country’s first-ever all-black film, La Negrada (Black Mexicans), directed by Jorge Pérez Solano, one of Mexico’s biggest filmmakers.

The story follows the lives of two Afro-Mexican women,  Juana and Magdalena, who are romantically involved with the same man called Neri.

It starts off with a Mexican immigration officer asking one of the protagonists “You are not Mexican, right?’ just because she is black.

What makes the film refreshing is that it features non-professional actors and is shot in Costa Chica, a region in Oaxaca with one of the biggest populations of black Mexicans.

Although the Afro-Mexicans have been featured in documentaries, this film is a fiction piece that captures the daily lives of Mexicans and the subtle and overt racism they go through. It further gives a glimpse of the music and natural background that adds flavour to their experience.

Before 2015, Mexico and Chile were the only Latin American countries that did not officially count the people of African descent in their surveys. Many lauded the move by Mexico at the time while others felt that it had been long overdue.

Afro-Mexicans are the descendants of enslaved African people brought into the country in the 16th and 17th century. The indigenous communities in Mexico reduced drastically at this time because of diseases.

The shortage of labour saw slaves from Africa brought in: estimates indicate 200,000 slaves arrived in the country. They were forced to work in plantations in the South and underground mines in the North. Mexico had a larger African slave population in the early 1600s than any other country in the Americas.

Most of them tried to escape the horrendous experience and ended up in the mountainous region of Mexico where they hid in caves and jungles. One such community was established in the state of Veracruz in 1570 by former slave Gaspar Yanga, who dared to revolt against the Spaniards.

The statue of Gaspar Yanga…Wikipedia

The Afro-Mexicans of that time were quite instrumental in the development of Mexico. From music to the arts, they formed the fabric of Mexican culture.

Politically, Mexico’s second president was a black man called Vicente Guerrero, who abolished slavery in the country in 1829.

Vicente Guerrero

Most of the freed slaves then intermarried with the indigenous community, raising children known as “mulattos,” “pardos,” or “zambos.

In 1781, Mexicans of African descent helped established Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Pobladores, or “townspeople,” were a group of 44 settlers and four soldiers from Mexico who came from various Spanish castes, with over half of the group being of African descent.

Governor of Las Californias, a Spanish-owned region, Felipe de Neve called on 11 families to help build the new city in the region by recruiting them from Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico. According to a census record taken at the time, there were two persons of African ancestry, eight Spanish and Black persons, and nine American Indians. There was also one Spanish and Indian person, with the rest being Spaniards.

In Los Angeles, the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park honoured the pobladores in the 1950s with a plaque, but it was mysteriously removed. In a Los Angeles Times report, it was suggested that the removal of the plaque was racially motivated. However, in 1981 during the city’s bicentennial, the plaque was replaced.

While a lot of modern people are inclined to believe that the Afro-Mexican population declined over the years, statistics indicate that the population ranges between two per cent and eight per cent of the Mexican population. However, these blacks still suffer from discrimination in their home country.

Not only are they deported to other Latin American countries because the police believe there are no black people in Mexico, they are also living in abject poverty.

It is such incidents and lack of recognition by the Mexican government that forced a number of Afro-Mexican activists to rally behind such recognition.

México Negro, a rights group formed in 1997, is seeking for the constitutional recognition of Afro-Mexicans and the increased visibility of Afro-Mexican culture.

Such recognition has taken too long for various reasons including the feeling that mestizo identity (the mix between indigenous people and Europeans) is a better term than breaking down groups into ethnicity.

The lack of recognition of the community has limited them from advancing their own agenda including socio-political and economic survival.

Some Afro-Mexicans have turned to music and dance to express themselves and stay true to their African roots. One of such groups is the dance troupe in the southern state of Oaxaca, known as Obatala. They have been touring different parts of the state of Oaxaca creating awareness around their ancestral African heritage with their energetic and unique African dances.

The Afro-Mexican dance group identifies itself with a popular Yoruba deity called Obatala, which is believed to be the oldest of gods generally referred to as Orisas in Nigeria.

Obatala, which is always adorned in white, is also said to be the father of many other Orisas. While this god is synonymous with the Yoruba community in Nigeria, he is also very popular in Latin America.

This article by Ismail Akwei was first published n

Why 2019 is the year for you to visit Ghana as an African American

Hollywood stars in Ghana, December 2018. Photo: Boris Kodjoe

Since the first slave ships landed in America some 400 years ago carrying Africans to work on plantations and serve their white captives, several attempts have been made by individuals and organisations to repatriate African descendants.

Ghana is the only African country that has tried on multiple occasions to return the black diaspora back to the home of their forebears. However, the multiple attempts in the past decades to settle African Americans in Africa failed due to an unwelcoming environment contrary to the promised land.

The West African country is giving it another shot in 2019 with the launch of The Year of Return programme that coincides with the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans from West Africa reaching American shores in 1619.

The Year of Return was also launched in September 2018 by Ghana’s president in the United States with members of the Congressional Black Caucus making it the only centrally organized public-private partnership with an African nation to commemorate the arrival of Africans in the U.S.

Before Marcus Garvey presented his famous “Back to Africa” programme in New York City in 1920, a Ghanaian merchant and pioneer pan-Africanist from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Alfred Charles Sam, had personally started a campaign to resettle African Americans in their “ancestral home” in freedom.

Chief Alfred Sam

Sam purchased the former German ship Curityba and renamed it S.S. Liberia to embark on a voyage back to Ghana to settle at Akim. He initially embarked on the first voyage with 60 African Americans who sold all their property to join him in the “promised land”. They made it to Saltpond but were denied ownership of the land Sam had promised at Akim.

After physical and financial hardships due to restrictions, some of the settlers returned to Oklahoma where they came from while others went to other African countries including Liberia.

Much earlier in the 1800s, black slaves managed to escape bondage in slave ships and return back to the continent. Others, who were enslaved in the Americas, also fought for their freedom and won the right to be returned to Africa. Examples are the Afro-Brazilian slaves who settled in several coastal towns of West Africa.

There were also ex-slave repatriations funded by the colonists that founded Sierra Leone and Liberia. Individuals of African descent also single-handedly found their way back to the continent after witnessing torturous experiences black people faced in Europe and beyond, despite the abolition of the slave trade.

The departure of the Back-to-Africa Movement ship Laurada bound for Liberia, March 1896…Illustrated American Magazine

In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey also championed the return of black people to the continent and the exit of European colonizers for the Africans to manage their own affairs. This ideology was supported by the early followers of the Rastafari Movement who believed that Marcus Garvey was the John the Baptist of the time and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was the Messiah.

Ethiopia is noted as the second country after Ghana to offer land to black people from the West after Emperor Haile Selassie I offered 500 acres of land at Shashamene (150 miles south of Addis Ababa) for the support he received in his struggle with Italy during its invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

In 1963, Rastafarians started emigrating to the “promised land” and their number swelled in 1966 after Selassie’s visit to Jamaica.

The overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 ended the movement as the coup makers took over all lands including Shashamene and many settlers fled the country. Today, many of the returnees do not feel welcome in the country as they are still regarded as foreigners and are refused citizenship.

Ghana is the only country in the 21st century that has legally offered to resettle people of African descent in Africa. In the year 2000, Ghana became the first African country to officially open its doors to people of African descent from all over the world.

The West African country passed the “Right of Abode” law which allows any person of African descent to apply and be granted the right to stay in Ghana indefinitely.

This was followed by the launch of the Diaspora Affairs Bureau under the foreign affairs ministry in 2014 to manage the migration and engage the diaspora to provide a sustainable link with various government agencies to achieve development and investment goals.

As at 2014, over 3,000 African-Americans and people of Caribbean descent are estimated to be living in Ghana. The Diaspora Affairs Bureau has expedited the acquisition of the permanent residency which was earlier delayed by bureaucratic processes. It took some applicants years to get their official documentation when it was supposed to take six months.

Many resorted to renewable resident permits and marriages with Ghanaians to stay and work fruitfully in the country. Rita Marley, the wife of reggae legend Bob Marley, was the first person to be granted the indefinite stay in Ghana in 2014, 14 years after the law was passed.

In 2016 alone, 34 Afro-Caribbeans were granted Ghanaian citizenship to enjoy full benefits as Ghanaians. Those who have stayed on appreciate the warmth and peacefulness of the country despite the few cultural setbacks like being regarded as more American and Caribbean than African despite years of living in the country.

Ghana was home to pan-Africanists like George Padmore, Maya Angelou, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray among others who emigrated after the country’s independence in 1957 after establishing a friendship with the first president Kwame Nkrumah who himself had studied in the United States.

Many other distinguished African Americans have visited the West African country in the 50s and 60s to witness the promised land and warm hospitality offered by Ghana.

A new crop of African Americans who either trace their genealogy to the West African country or have heard about the “home” it offers visit regularly to connect with the people and history, as well as see the tourist sites and castles that hold the dark memories of slavery.

Ghana’s 2019 Year of Return programme was designed to offer what was promised. It kicked off late December 2018 with dozens of Hollywood stars honouring the country’s invitation through Ghanaian-German actor, Boris Kodjoe, who pledged to visit his father’s home country with his celebrity friends.

From left to right: Michael Jai White, Djimon Hounsou, Boris Kodjoe, Anthony Anderson and Jidenna

In total, 93 celebrities including Anthony Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Michael Jai White, Idris Elba, Cynthia Bailey, Naomi Campbell, Jidenna, real estate mogul Jay Morrison, media personalities Mike Hill, Ebro Darden, Isha Sesay and many more were in the country for the week-long Full Circle Festival to connect to their African roots.

The first visit for many, the stars toured the beautiful landscapes of the country and spectacular historical sites where they were enlightened about the real Africa – which is not synonymous with poverty and war as always shown by the international media.

Michael Jai White was made a chief when he came to Ghana in December for the worthwhile Full Circle Festival.

The Year of Return started officially in January 2019 with events planned in collaboration with the Ghana Tourism Authority under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture which is leading the project in collaboration with the Office of Diaspora Affairs at the Office of the President, the Panafest Foundation and the Adinkra Group of USA.

Click here for the year-long calendar of activities designed to make your journey home to Ghana worthwhile.

This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on

Documenting Sudan’s protests through cartoons, the daring work of Boushra Cartoonist

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

In recent times, political cartoonists have faced stern opposition from governments and laws that stifle dissent and profer prison terms. These revolutionary artists help cause social and political change in their societies with their works of art.

Some African cartoonists who have gotten on politicians’ nerves are Tanzania’s Godfrey ‘Gado’ Mwampembwa, South Africa’s Jonathan ‘Zapiro’ Shapiro, Equatorial Guinea’s Ramón Nse Esono Ebale, Egyptian Doaa Eladl and Zimbabwe’s Tony Namate.

In recent times, political cartoonists have faced stern opposition from governments and laws that stifle dissent and profer prison terms. These revolutionary artists help cause social and political change in their societies with their works of art.

Some African cartoonists who have gotten on politicians’ nerves are Tanzania’s Godfrey ‘Gado’ Mwampembwa, South Africa’s Jonathan ‘Zapiro’ Shapiro, Equatorial Guinea’s Ramón Nse Esono Ebale, Egyptian Doaa Eladl and Zimbabwe’s Tony Namate.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

Sudanese artist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra, has documented the social and political issues in the country through cartoons which are published daily and immediately after a major development.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

Boushra is not new to political cartoons and revolutions as his first cartoon exhibition was in Tahrir Square in Cairo with the El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. It was entitled “The Caricature Revolution.”

He has also participated in exhibitions in Gaza and Ramallah and was recognized by the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah for his work in support of the Palestinian cause. He participated in multiple efforts supporting the Syrian revolution.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

In Sudan, he produces daily cartoons on the protests which have been described as a revolution to end the regime of al-Bashir who is facing calls from students, doctors, opposition leaders and other professionals to resign.

Boushra’s cartoons are published in several media locally and internationally. “The arts are a means of struggle and effective peaceful change. It takes hard work to contribute to positive change movements,” he said.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

The artist said he is inspired by the experience of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-ali who created the revolutionary caricature figure “Handalah” to document and convey the Palestinian message to the world.

Boushra has participated in several other art exhibitions locally, regionally and internationally including the Arab Culture Festival in Liverpool – reflecting Arab issues to the Western community – the global exhibition in Belgium during the terrorist attacks in Europe, and numerous technical exhibitions in Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, he told Face2Face Africa.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

A 2010 graduate of the Sudan University of Science and Technology, Faculty of Civil Engineering, Boushra Al-Mujahid is an engineer and project manager. He also works as a business development consultant and is an active member of the Sudanese and Egyptian Association of the Caricature.

Sudanese cartoonist, Boushra Al-Mujahid, also known as Boushra Cartoonist / Source: Himself

Married with two children, Boushra has worked for several local newspapers and Arab websites as a cartoonist including Al-Guds website for culture and heritage and Al-Jazeera.

Here are some of the art works he shared with us.

This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on