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Slave heritage is better than none in cradle of baseball talent

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOBILE, Ala. -- Cudjoe Lewis once said that "you can tell a man's been a slave by the way he stoops; that stoop can get way down in your bones and hand down to the next generation."

He was in bondage himself for a while, but by all accounts, Cudjoe Lewis never stooped. When he died in 1935, Lewis was called by the local newspaper as a man with "a high degree of native intelligence," quite a compliment then for a black man in Alabama.

Cleon Jones never knew Cudjoe Lewis. But when Jones finished 13 good years in the major leagues, one reason he came back to Plateau, this little corner of Mobile, had to do with Lewis and his shipmates, one of whom was Jones's great-great grandmother.

Jones is Plateau's only big leaguer. But right up the road is Whistler, home to former Cub Billy Williams and to Tommy Agee, who was Jones' teammate on the New York Mets in their 1969 "miracle" season. And nearby is Tomaville, where Willie McCovey and the Aaron boys, Hank and Tommy, grew up.

Williams, McCovey and Hank Aaron are all in baseball's Hall of Fame, which is adding a few more members this week. But though there are 202 other former players memorialized at Cooperstown, nowhere else did so many spring from so few people over such a short period of time.

Nobody knows why so many superb ballplayers came from three small, low-income black neighborhoods, none of which would meet a real-estate agent's definition of "desirable." In fact, one reason its young athletes worked so hard at their games was to escape.

"It was the only way to get out," said Agee. "My dad made $85 a week. My parents would never be able to send me to college."

"I've tried to analyze it," Williams said the other day. "We didn't even have baseball in high school. But I'll tell you this: We played a lot of baseball."

But Cleon Jones thinks one reason they all made the major leagues is that their world was influenced in some way by Cudjoe Lewis and his shipmates.

"They knew who they were," Jones said, speaking of himself and the other players. "They didn't have to search for identity. They knew their heritage. They had roots."

Roots is a word of some importance to black Americans, and not just because it was the title of Alex Haley's book. Most white Americans know which ancestor first came here. Few blacks do.

And as Mable Dennison wrote, "For an individual to know nothing about his or her heritage can help reduce, crush or even eliminate the basic desirable qualities of one's identity."

But Jones and Mable Dennison and some of their neighbors do know their family heritage. And when Jones returned to Mobile to coach at Bishop State College, he wanted his children to be brought up near the spot where his great-great-grandmother hid in the canebrakes with Mable Dennsion's grandmother, with Cudjoe Lewis and with the others from the Clotilde, the last ship that brought slaves to America.

And thereby hangs a tale.

It begins on another ship, the Roger B. Taney, owned by the Meaher brothers and plying the local rivers. One day in 1858, over drinks on board, Tim Meaher and some Northerners started arguing over the laws against importing slaves and the death penalty for violating them. Meaher bragged he had a ship swift enough to outrun the federal patrols. The Northerners doubted him. Somewhere in the night, a wager was made, perhaps for $100,000.

Meaher turned to William Foster, another transplanted Northerner, who had built the Clotilde in 1856. It was described at the time as "light and commodious ... of that graceful turn which confers assurance that she will prove a fast sailer."

With two mates, a crew of nine, 25 casks of rice, 80 casks of rum, some beef, pork, sugar, flour and molasses, Foster set sail March 4, 1859. After a near-mutiny that Foster staved off by promising to double the crew's wages, the Clotilde arrived May 15 on the West African coast at Whydah in Dahomey, which is now Ouidah, in the Republican of Benin.

After spending the night in the "merchant's exchange" (all this from what purports to be a handwritten memoir Foster wrote), he met with the king of Dahomey, "a man of 250 pounds avoirdupois," who lived in a house made of skulls and whose people worshiped snakes, which they also wore around their shoulders.

But the king was not selling his own people. He was selling people who lived farther inland, people who had been captured by his army of fierce female warriors, perhaps some of his several hundred wives.

At least that's the way Cudjoe Lewis later recalled it, according to an article by Zora Neale Hurston that appeared in the Journal of Negro History in October, 1927. As Lewis remembered it, his people, who may have been called Tarkars, were peaceful farmers who lived "many days from the water," in an area called Togo.

From a stockade, Foster chose 130 of the fat king's captives and loaded them onto the Clotilde. But as his "cargo" was being boarded, Foster looked through his spyglass and saw two black-flagged ships heading toward him, clearly bent on stealing back the captives.

Though only 116 of the 130 people for whom he'd paid were on board, Foster sailed immediately, and "the wind being favorable," outran his pursuers and headed home.

On July 9, after another threatened mutiny put down by another (equally insincere) offer of higher wages, the Clotilde reached Mobile Bay. There, Foster wrote, "I transferred my slaves to a river steamboat and sent them up into the canebrake to hide them until further disposal. I then burned my schooner to the water's edge and sunk her."

The frightened Africans were put to work by Meaher and Foster. But the war came only months later, and when it ended, so did slavery. The Clotilde's passengers were not enslaved long enough for family members to be sold away from one another, or for either their sense of community or their longing to return to Africa to be crushed.

After the war, Cudjoe Lewis asked Tim Meaher to give his ex-slaves some land so they could save enough money to return home.

"Fool, do you think I will give you property upon property?" Meaher said. "You do not belong to me now."

So they rented the land. They farmed, chopped wood, fished, worked for a dollar a week in the mills and saved enough to buy small farms.

And in the course of it all, they established a community. Africa Town, they called it then, and they call it that now. At the start, their little society was based on their tribal customs. It was, someone wrote, "a small tribal/agrarian community, isolated along the river."

Part of their social cohesion was religion. In Africa, they had worshiped Alahna, the chief of a pantheon which also included gods of the wind, sun, thunder and lightning. After the war, other blacks took them to church "and all became ardent Christians," Hurston said. Some of the first churches in southern Alabama were organized by the people who arrived on the Clotilde.

And in Plateau, the churches remain the center of community. "We do not waiver," Mable Dennison said. "We are really Christian people."

They also established one of southern Alabama's first schools, the Mobile County Training School, which still stands. "They had a little greater advantage," Dennison said. "You might call them capable people of esteem."

As it happens, many of their black neighbors had also avoided slavery. Like 63-year-old Aurelia Craig, many in Plateau who are not descended from the Clotilde passengers claim that their ancestors were not slaves either, but were "free people of color." Their claim is believable. According to a history of Alabama written by Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton, "around 1,000 free blacks, almost one-half of Alabama's total free black population in 1860, lived in Mobile County."

None of this explains why all those good ballplayers grew up here. But Williams and Agee agreed with Jones that they were helped by the strong sense of community, church and family which pervaded their homes and their neighborhoods. "That meant more than money, when you grow up in a loving and caring environment," said Williams. "There was a neighborhood and everybody stuck together."

Agee, now in the real estate business in New York, remembers his parents were "very poor, and very religious. My family believed the Lord would take care. Most of the times the Lord didn't, but I can never remember being hungry."

What they were all hungry for was a better life, and once they saw baseball as their pathway, they worked hard at it. "We'd be out at 6 in the morning, playing ball," Cleon Jones said. They had talent. They also had character.

Plenty of people of all races keep families and neighborhoods intact in the face of worse conditions than those found in Plateau. But it seems likely that knowing their heritage, their roots, made it easier here, even for those who were not descended directly from the Clotilde passengers.

As Aurelia Craig put it, the legacy of the man she called "Uncle Cudjoe" and his compatriots "affected the whole culture of the area by telling us that we were not slaves, that we had a heritage."

To honor that heritage, there is a monument to Cudjoe Lewis outside a church and there is the annual Africa-town festival, which has become a major event. A few years ago, a member of Benin's royal family even appeared. But Plateau has the look of a dying neighborhood. The riverfront is blocked off by two massive paper mills and acres of rail yards encroach from the other side.

"As time goes by, there's probably a leveling off" of community feeling, said Mable Dennison, who never lived in Plateau herself. Like many other descendants of the Clotilde, she lives in central Mobile, closer to shops and jobs.

But Eva Jones is still in Plateau, the last living child of one of those who came on the Clotilde. She's well into her 90s now, and was too frail to be visited recently. But a few years ago she came to church, where she talked about her father, Coullee Allen, who may have been Cudjoe Lewis's brother.

She was 91 then, and her voice was soft, and you might say that she bent over. So, just a bit, does Mable Dennison, now that she is 70. But they don't stoop. Not either one of them. They know who they are.

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