“I am a direct descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the last surviving slaves of the Clotilda and Cudjo Lewis’ brother. Charlie was also one of the founders of Union Missionary Baptist Church and Africatown. They called Charlie ‘Papa’ and he was in his 30’s when he arrived here from Ghana. Slavery had been abolished, but the Meaher family made a bet that they could bring slaves over under the U.S. marshall’s nose. The slaves were settled here and under someone else, but developed their own community and kept their culture. They built their own houses and were self-taught people living on so much less than we do today. Charlie was a skilled laborer and a fisherman and saved up and bought his own land from Col. Thomas Buford, his master. They found the resources to raise families and survive. They developed their own community and kept their culture. Africatown is one of the first towns founded and controlled by African Americans in the United States. Descendants of the original slaves still live here. My family comes from a small area called Lewis Quarters where Charlie lived. It is six houses in a secluded area and my great grandmother and grandmother also grew up there. Five families live there today.
Being a descendant of Charlie Lewis is a big legacy to live up to
I never thought this little town would get recognition with four books written about it and make national news like is happening now. Growing up, every Saturday my mom took us to the Quarters to see Mama, my grandmother. One day my dad told me it was the slave quarters where Charlie lived. In my teens and young adult life we didn’t talk about it as much and I was almost ashamed by it. When I was in the 9th grade, I saw Cudjo in the Alabama history book and I realized how important it was. Years later, I looked at the marquee of the names in front of the church and realized they are all significant. Cudjo wasn’t the only one on that ship with a story. There was also Charlie, Pollee Allen, Peter Lee, and Orsa Keeby. Each name on the marquee has descendants here with stories to share. Questlove from the band The Roots did ‘Finding Your Roots’ and discovered he is also a descendent of Charlie. I have tried to contact him about being cousins but have heard nothing so far.
A lady from the Smithsonian came down when they thought they found the Clotilda the first time. I told her my Aunt Lorna is a pioneer who keeps up with the history. Lorna hung up quilts and put out old clothing and cast iron skillets and did presentations in the Quarters about the family. The lady asked me, ‘But what are you doing?’ That night, I started planning a festival to bring the elders and the younger generations together of all the families to pass down the stories.
The first festival will be from 12-4 on Saturday. We will have the ritual of ‘Bringing in the Elders’ and will have a Libations ceremony where we call out the names and pour water on the ground. Dr. Natalie Robertson is the keynote speaker she wrote ‘The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors.’. A representative from each family will speak. It will be in the gymnasium at the Mobile County Training School in Africatown. I hope it becomes an annual event and maybe we can take it to Atlanta. Maybe some type of family memoir or another book can also come out of this with details we haven’t heard before.
I am sixth generation and want to plant seeds for the younger generations. Being handed the torch is a big responsibility and it is a legacy to live up to, but I am at the age I can embrace all of it. We need revitalization in the community to help it become what it used to be. It was once a flourishing city with stores and barbershops there. Today, people are struggling and need help with roofs.Young people moved away and never came back. We want people to come back.
I am thankful I stayed.”