Sylviane Anna Diouf

Historian of the African Diaspora


Abache/Clara Turner and Cudjo Lewis, 1912

Oluale/Charlie Lewis, 1912

Zuma and her grandchildren, 1912

Dreams of Africa in Alabama

2009 James F. Sulzby Award of the Alabama Historical Association
2008 Finalist Hurston/​Wright Legacy Award
2007 Wesley-Logan Prize of the American Historical Association




In the summer of 1860 more than fifty years after the United States legally abolished the international slave trade, 110 children, teenagers, and young adults from Benin and Nigeria were brought ashore in Alabama under cover of night. They were the last recorded group of Africans deported to the United States. Timothy Meaher, an established Mobile businessman, sent the slave ship, the Clotilda to Ouidah in the Bight of Benin, on a bet that he could "bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers' noses." He won the bet.

This book reconstructs -with never published photographs and documents- the lives of the young people in West Africa, recounts their capture and passage in the slave pen in Ouidah and their dreadful voyage, and describes their experience of slavery and freedom alongside American-born men and women.

For the first time, the personal and detailed testimonies of the slavers, and those of the deported Africans are gathered together to tell the best-documented but also the most forgotten story of the slave trade to the Western Hemisphere.

After emancipation, the group, under the leadership of Gumpa -a nobleman from Dahomey- reunited from various plantations, bought land, and founded their own settlement, known as African Town. They ruled it according to their customary laws, spoke their own regional language and, when giving interviews, insisted that writers use their African names so that their families would know that they were still alive.

The last survivor of the Clotilda died in 1935, but African Town (now called Africatown) is still home to the descendants of the men and women who dreamed of Africa in Alabama.

The publication of Dreams of Africa in Alabama marked the 200th anniversary of the official, if not actual, abolition of the American and British international slave trades.

PRAISE FOR Dreams of Africa in Alabama

An amazing story! Diouf shows how the African captives on the last American slave ship not only survived slavery, the civil war, and reconstruction in Alabama, but also fought to preserve African memories, culture, and community. The exhaustive research and graceful writing of Sylviane Diouf has brought this epic journey to life.
Robert Harms, author of The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

This remarkable story of how a group of captured Africans were torn from their native land in the kingdom of Dahomey, transported across the Atlantic Ocean to Mobile, Alabama shortly before the Civil War
and struggled to recapture their former lives by creating an African town during the postwar era, offers a unique perspective on American history. The narrative is at once tragic, uplifting, and
engrossing.
Loren Schweninger, co-author of In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South

In a tale worthy of a novelist, Sylviane Diouf provides a well-researched, nicely written, and moving account of the last slave ship to America, whose 110 captives arrived in Mobile in 1860 and, after the war, created their dream of Africa in Alabama and called it
African Town.
Howard Jones, author of Mutiny on the Amistad

Without question, this is the richest narration of the history of the last set of African slaves who came to the United States.The book carefully illustrates how they they were able to construct a semi-independent existence, navigating the treacherous experience of bondage during the Civil War years and of the constricted freedom that followed. Not only do we gain access to precious, invaluable details about how the marginalized made their own history, we receive additional profound knowledge of the process through which African practices were retained.
Toyin Falola, University of Texas, and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters

Dreams of Africa in Alabama is an excellent example of the new scholarship on the African diaspora that reconstructs the individual life stories of enslaved Africans-- in this case the people brought
from West Africa to Alabama in 1860 on the Clotilda. Diouf has sensitively revealed how these people built on their shared misfortune in being enslaved to form the vibrant community of African Town in the midst of an increasingly racist society, a testimony to unshakeable memories of their African homelands.
Paul E. Lovejoy, Harriet Tubman Research
Institute, York University


REVIEWS

Booklist
*Starred Review*
In this fascinating book, Diouf details how the last enslaved Africans to be brought to the U.S. were integrated into American slave culture and how they fared five years later, after emancipation. When their efforts to return to the west coast of Africa failed, the Africans founded their own settlement, which came to be known as Africatown. They managed to maintain their language, customs, and social structures into the twenty-first century, though the last survivor of the Clotilda died in 1935. Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, this book will appeal to readers interested in the retention of African culture by enslaved black Americans. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Cahiers d'etudes africaines
Dreams of Africa in Alabama contributes to expand our understanding of slavers’ “paths and diversions” through a well-crafted and gripping biography of the Clotilda…. [The book] is also a groundbreaking analysis of the slave ship as a social space and a mobile community bound by water …. [A] sophisticated contribution to “Slave Route Studies” with their stress on African continuities, [it] exemplifies the new scholarship on African Diaspora at its best. It is an accurate rendition of the Clotilda’s shipmates’ “Odyssey without Return” that corrects countless mistakes made by previous writers on their origins, voyage and various other aspects of their lives, partly because of mutual borrowings or outright plagiarism. Moreover, it reconstitutes the enslaved Africans’ perceptions of their ordeal and its aftermath, de-emphasizing their otherness, while preserving the complexity of their relationship to both their place of origin and their place of residence.
Sylvie Kande

Southern Historian
I found much to admire... but nothing impressed me more than Diouf's meticulous research in both American and African sources.... [I]t is more than a gripping slave story. Few historians have succeeded to the extent that Diouf has in presenting a fully fleshed picture of the experience of Africans negotiating life in America. In her hands, their backstory becomes integral to understanding how they survived and created a livable community in this most awkward of times.
Donna L. Cox

The Journal of American History
Diouf's masterful storytelling, thorough research, and deft handling of the body of sometimes-conflicting sources bring the story to light and effectively set the record straight (...)Diouf significantly enhances our understanding of the experience of capture, sale, and transport from Africa to America from the perspective of the captured.

African Studies Quarterly
Through an impressive study combining a historian's analysis of archival and published sources with an anthropologist's fieldwork in Africa and Alabama, Diouf provides a narrative of the Clotilda Africans and an insightful discourse on race within the United States... Diouf's highly accessible study will certainly stimulate intense discussion among academics, students, and, hopefully, Americans in general.

Civil War Book review
Diouf immerses the reader in the diversity and complexity of Africa; especially of those nations from which the one-hundred and ten were taken. The narrative is patient, disciplined, compelling, and brave, never shying away from the central role that Africans, in this case the Dahomey, played in the enslavement of other Africans. Every significant phase of the middle passage is captured and each detail, however subtle, is portrayed vividly. Diouf is remarkably successful at making the African captives real human beings. This is especially true with regard to the man who became Cudjo Lewis, whose life, among all of the Africans taken on the Clotilda, was the most thoroughly documented. These chapters deserve, if not absolutely demand, the attention of all writers interested in the Atlantic slave trade (...)

African Studies Review
A compelling and often tragic narrative of survival and adaptation. It makes it clear that the Atlantic slave trade was not only a part of a 'distant' history of the United States, but that it also continued to shape our country long after it was officially abolished two centuries ago.
Lisa A. Lindsay

The Journal of Southern History
Diouf's book makes a significant contribution to the history of race and identity in Alabama and the Atlantic world.
Timothy R. Buckner

H-Civil War
Diouf has written an excellent social history of the Clotilda ....{her} historial account of certain Clotilda Africans is very significant for demonstrating African experiences before enslavement.... Another important contribution of the study concerns Africans adapting to life in Alabama after the Civil War and through the first decades of the twentieth century. ... Dreams of Africa is one of the few studies of transatlantic slavery that utilizes primary sources from the perspectives of both slavers and the enslaved.
Oleta Prinsloo

The Journal of African American History
"Extremely well-documented work that breathes life into the African Diaspora.
Debra Newman Ham

QBR The Black Book Review
Dreams of Africa in Alabama reads as a novel, yet it is the product of rigorous research (performed both in the United States and in Benin) as attested to by the prominent place allotted to archival material in the bibliography. As we are celebrating the bicen-tennial of the official abolition of slave trade by Great Britain and the United States, Dreams of Africa in Alabama offers an invaluable window into the experience of no less than twelve million African deportees onto the Americas.
Sylvie Kande

Choice
For many students of African American history, the story of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the US, will be a surprise. More surprising yet is the story of this group of Africans who preserved their sense of being African and just after the Civil War created a community that survived into the 20th century--African Town near Mobile, Alabama (...) this important contribution provides readers with the opportunity to consider African culture, its survival even under slavery, its sense of community with roots in West Africa, and the difficulties of maintaining community in a segregated and increasingly Jim Crow South in the late 19th century.

Mobile Press Register
The extraordinary story of the Clotilda, Africatown and Cudjo Lewis has long begged for a competent scholarly analysis, at last a new book provides it. Dreams of Africa in Alabamais a compelling work greounded in prodigious research on multiple continents.... [The book] stands as a moving memorial to the indomitable spirit of a small group of Africans who managed to maintain their dignity and their humanity on an unfamiliar and often hostile shore.

The Northern Mariner
Dreams of Africa in Alabama is an extraordinarily well-written historical account...where the reader will find horror, sorrow and courage, coupled with a sensational resilience to the harsh conditions which the African slaves endured.

Journal of Social History
[Diouf] skillfully traces the Clotilda survivors and their African American descendants from the antebellum period until the 1930s. ... One of the most illuminating aspects of Diouf's study is her elucidation of the Clotilda Africans' often troubled relationships with African-Americans.

Books

The first book on the American maroons' experience
The fascinating story of the East Africans who distinguished themselves in India
In a tale worthy of a novelist, Sylviane Diouf provides a well-researched, nicely written, and moving account of the last slave ship to America, whose 110 captives arrived in Mobile in 1860 and, after the war, created their dream of Africa in Alabama. Howard Jones, author of Mutiny on the Amistad
Thorough and ambitious. William and Mary Quarterly
Readers are presented with a wide range of evidence to show how Africans fought against slavery as well as the slave trade. Canadian Journal of History
A groundbreaking look at [the] bigger picture has been unveiled in a project called "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience." The Washington Post
Children's Books
Bintou’s hair is short and fuzzy, but she wants beautiful braids “with gold coins and seashells” like the big girls, but everyone says no. The New York Times
Young readers will enjoy this fascinating look at [some] brave leaders. Children's Literature
Destroys the stereotype of the happy, ignorant slave child. Booklist

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