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Mobile Public Library Local History & Genealogy Library

The Local History and Genealogy Library is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to the history of Mobile, and the greater Gulf Coast region.

Martha West Davis Interview Clips

Title

Martha West Davis Interview Clips

Description

Martha West Davis talks about her grandfather, Cudjo Lewis, the Clotilde, Cudjo's funeral, Mon Louis Island, the Plateau Community, etc.

Creator

National African American Archives & Museum,
Museum of Mobile

Publisher

National African American Archives & Museum,
Museum of Mobile

Date

1999

Language

English

Type

Oral history interview

Identifier

VOHP-MarthaWestDavis-CudjoLewis

Interviewer

Kern Jackson

Interviewee

Martha West Davis

Location

564 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Mobile, AL 36603

Transcription

Jackson: Now tell me about your grandfather.

Davis: Okay.

Jackson: Or his story.

Davis: You mean Cudjo? Okay Cudjo was a very active man. He didn’t believe in passivity. He was always doing something, and he was very, very friendly. He had several friends that were white people. One in particular was Alex Zoghby’s on Dauphin Street. Another great friend of his was Charles Ethler. He was the first Baptist evangelist in the states of the United States, in California. So Charles9999 would come to him sometimes on a visit and spend a whole day just visiting Cudjo. And he was a very good friend of my great-grandfather. And I regret that I was too small to hear what he was saying, but he would talk to my grandad and wed look up at him, you know up—they were tall people—and try to understand what they were talking about. And he also said that Cudjo was a wonderful man, and he just enjoyed spending money to travel from California just to see him and talk with him, and read the Bible to him. In other words, my grandfather could not read, but whenever his friends whom he trusted would come, he’d always ask them to at least say the passage. And he would listen and he would explain what they said. He had good memory, and I think that he did quite well not being able to read. And he would always relate certain passages that he said.

Jackson: What did your grandaddy do for a living?

Davis: My grandaddy farmed for a living. He farmed the entire area from the Bay Bridge entrance there on the highway back to Yorktown Baptist Church was a vast area. Very large plot of land.

Jackson: If you can go back in your memory and remember your granddaddy and grandmama’s house, tell me about it.

Davis: Okay. First we moved from in the middle of the street there, there’s the cutoff. And then our house my grandmother’s house was a very large house—about eight rooms. We had long shutters, now they are called Venetian blinds but we had wooden shutters that would pull down, and you could see all through the streets there. And when we moved from that house our grandfather built his house in the back of our house. This was seventy-five years we lived there. It was made out of the old-fashioned pinewood. He also added a porch there, and it made his house look like a big place. They had a fence around it with lots of shrubbery. Course he farmed; you could see he was a farmer cause he filled the entire area with vegetables, with food to feed people because there was no need of him trying to preserve the food. It was too vast. I believe in my estimation he fed about five thousand people during his lifetime. At least five thousand or more cause he gave away what he raised, the food products.

Jackson: What did your grandfather tell you about his journey to America?

Davis: Well, as a little girl, about three and a half years old, I can recall he said it was a long ride, and they had limited, food was very limited. They had very little water, and it was a very crowded condition. I also remember him saying that if they saw a ship coming toward the schooner he was riding was sailing on, they were told to tuck their heads down in a position that would not tell people someone was on board the schooner. So they were always trained to hide. It was an illegal trip. In fact he said they forced. He said one night they were, I suppose, going to bed in the villages, and there were two kings that were arguing, or rather they almost went into a state of mutiny. They were fighting because of one reason, because Cudjo’s king, Dahomey had a good production. He had more food that would feed the people in the village than King Taika, so Taika got angry and they had this gentleman, a tall gentleman, I won’t call the name to help to capture the village as much as they could: a fairly large number of people. So they got on this ship not knowing where their sisters and brothers were. So in our case, in my family, my grandaddy left his mother and father in the village, and he had no control because they were forced to get on the ship Clotilde and sail to America. There was no chance of saying, “I don’t want to go. Where am I going?” But they only could say, “ I’m going to a new land, a New World.” So he came to America after seventy days of voyage, the duration of seventy days.

Jackson: How old were you when your grandfather passed?

Davis: I was in the, it might have been the middle school. After grade four I think, or something like that because I recall having seen him before he passed away after going to school every day. One morning I carried him some, what it’s called, cream of wheat, but grandpa called it gruel because that was the name he could say, I says gruel. He said it’s 9999, it made out of corn, your fine corn. And the fact that I was walking very fast one morning, I turned the bowl of gruel or cream of wheat over on my right wrist, and I bear the scar now where the hot cereal turned over. And I came back to my grandmother’s house, and I told her what I had done. She said don’t cry, it’s going to be okay you know what grandmother’s always say. But I wanted the chance of being a little maid, you know I want to care for grandaddy cause I always loved him so much, but that was one of my little hurts I had to endure. And I see the scar everyday on my arm, but it’s a scar I appreciate because I had a chance to be a little nurse for my grandpa.

Jackson: Now I understand, I’m not the first person to come along and interview member of your family. Could you tell me something about that?

Davis: No, you really are not the first one in the nineties, but I believe that before now there were people who called in and asked the Press Register here downtown in Mobile how to go out there and get some interviews. I don’t know who they were, but I was always told that one lady named Zora Neale Hurston came in a long time ago and interviewed my grandpa. Another lady also came; I forget her name right now. But I understand there were two people who wrote books on grandpa, and that the books were sold. Some books are still saved or reserved in the library here on reference shelves—that you can’t take out. So my family has one book, our private book. It has the same story, the same style that the first book that he was ever interviewed, has the same format. Course they are trying to change that, but I prefer having the old, old draft because it tells the real true story. Lot of people are making stories, I mean fiction, that’s okay with me it’s fine, but the genuine thing is what we need to preserve: that the truth, more or less the truth. And that’s what I really can appreciate, the little story of Kazula.

Jackson: When I came in this morning, and we met this morning, you told me about something I had never heard about and that was a cooling board. What is a cooling board?

Davis: Yes, I thought perhaps you had heard of it. Anyway, the cooling board system is when grandpa, Kazula, would take a family member out to a place it’s called Pennsylvania, Alabama. It’s going north, northeast. This is a friend he knew in Mobile, Alabama here. Her name was Aunt Sally, and she was a very good friend of grandpa’s, Kazula. So one Sunday we went, we had a Burgender, another car was a Plymouth. WE had two cars, two-car garage, and so grandpa dressed with a high hat on and a black silk suit to see Aunt Sally. But she was outside on the porch on what is called a cooling board or wood, a piece of wide wood, she was dressed as if she was dead, had expired. So everybody was along, because her son thought she had, thought his mother had passed along. She really was in a comatic state so Aunt Sally really wasn’t dead; she was in a coma.

Jackson: When you do your work here as a docent, explaining and interpreting Africatown, what are some of the things you like to highlight about Africatown?

Davis: I like mostly to think of the thing that my grandfather had as a person who did not have any enmity against his travel, which he could not avoid, and how he would relate to blacks and whites. There was no color line. He said many times that he loved everybody: race creed or color was a not a matter. He was happy to be in America and to have a family. And so I think he was a man who did not hold anything against his travel. He was just happy to be alive, to have survived. I am happy to know myself that he had no broken parts of his body. He had normal arms and normal eyes; he never wore eyeglasses. He never had a tooth pulled. He had no diseases. He only had a long duration of lifetime, longevity because when he expired he was a healthy man. He walked upright. He was very free. He was not afraid to talk to people. So I believe he was one of the most normal men I’ve ever seen, to have had such trials, such hard deprivation to come to a new land called America.

Jackson: Do you know where your grandfather is buried?

Davis: Yes, I certainly do. I know the spot and I always have a vision of just how I looked at that hole there, and saw him being lowered down, never to see him again. It is one of my most misunderstood moments in my lifetime, to have him to be covered. I remember him very well.

Jackson: How was it a misunderstood moment?

Davis: Well, I really did not want him to pass because I did not know enough about him as to… have him to… but he held my hand many times he talked to us. But I didn’t have enough long time with him as I’d hoped to have. He lived more about a hundred and twenty. But he passed that age where he had to leave us. It was almost, it was a very good moments of lamentation. Everybody was just saying why, why; such a good man loved people, fed people. Even, in fact I understand that my grandmother said one time that he loaned the money what he had to people, and he was never paid back. And this was a true fact, and I wondered why people sometimes took advantage of him. He had lots of artifacts there. In fact he had a beautiful gold walking cane, not a curved one, but a beautiful round cylinder-type. It was taken out, confiscated. He had lots of jewelry that Zora Neale Hurston gave him that was taken out. Lots of things were taken. People would come there, not knowing to us, in the morning-time, kinda early. We watched them very carefully, but sometimes you just can’t watch everybody who comes from different sides. In the back part of your house you can’t see. But we kept watch on grandpa, I mean as much as we could. We really loved him very dearly. But we noticed that a lot of his personal things were taken. I remember having tried on a fur shoe. My feet was very tiny. One shoe would make two 99999 on each side of it. I had a very small foot. He said you can’t wear those; they’re too large; they’re made directly in Africa. Beautiful fur shoes: I tried those on.

Jackson: Where’s he buried? What’s the name of the place?

Davis: It’s the Plateau Cemetery. Plateau Cemetery originally. The first site. There are two sites now. The cemetery now is combined into the old part and the new part which enters on the Chin road. It goes east and west; it’s on the very edge.

Cont.

Jackson: What are some of the most significant things that have happened in the history of Africatown, USA and Plateau?

Davis: Well I think, to me, I would say my granfather’s eulogistic services where my mother lost her temper, because when he expired, she wanted him to be in this facility where he dedicated and was hired gave his life for the people in his church. Few days, what he did, but then the time he expired that Friday evening, July 28, 1935, he was sort of a misunderstanding about where to put him until the funeral on Monday morning. So my grand, my mother Angela told the mortician, that’s Johnson-Allen that she wanted my granfather to be viewed in the church for three days and three night because she thought there were people coming from abroad, which they did, to view his body. So it was time for the new pastor to come in for his conference, and election. And there was a disagreement about that, so my grandmother told Dr. Allen, Dr. Johnson-Allen, that is she didn’t, if they didn’t put him in there, and she desired, because he deserved the honor, that she would carry my grandpa on her shoulders, and I knew that was, could happen. So they agreed to her that they’d put her in there to rest three days and nights. But that was a matter of honoring someone who had given their life to the whole community. I thought she was not out of order to have said she wished her grandfather, I mean, yes, granddaddy to be laid there. I mean put to rest, and it’s three days. It wouldn’t have hurt anything or any meeting or any sort of conference that was going to be held for election of the pastor, pastorship. So that was maybe sort of….What I didn’t understand was why he couldn’t stay there. I mean in the lying there, because that was his lifestyle, the church. He was a custodian there along with my mother, she traced behind him as a little girl and she was playing with brooms and mops the floor with the creative mops they had. She would clean the spittoons, she was would wash the lanterns lights, and they worked hard with that building, that placed where he downed the pine trees. But they didn’t want him there, they wanted him to be shipped in, I mean pulled in there and pulled out. She said, no, don’t disturb his body. Once he is still, he will be still till we have his services. So she won. My mother was very, very up and up. She didn’t take any low-back when she was right. She said she knew she was right about having him lay in rest there, because he was an honorable man. So my mother won.

Jackson: Miss Woods, Miss Lorna Woods once told me about the services that she heard later her family stories about how the descendents of the Clotilde would hold prayer meetings during the week, not just on Sunday.

Davis: Yes.

Jackson: Tell me about that please.

Davis: Well it was a sort of tradition that everybody there that everybody was so centered around pleasing, I guess you might say doing things that was right, and having good morals, and success, as you know Plateau came a long ways from a log cabin church to a brick building now. This is the third church. My grandfather helped to build…they hewed down the trees in order to make a place for worship, so they, we had those early prayer meetings and prayer times, where we’s be praying and asking god for help because there was no other source that we could, that they could seek other than from praying and asking god to provide better jobs for black people because most of the jobs there was maids or even lower than maids you know. People had to do, I mean sawmill. Women had to use those, hot things at the Ben Archer plant. They worked women and men there. Not just men, the women worked there too, they had to make shingles and things for the houses and did heavy work there. But it was just the way of life they had to do.

Jackson: Tell me more about some sawmills and those women.

Davis: Okay.

Jackson: If you could, in your mind’s eye go back and describe what it was like for them, and what kind of work was that, in addition to all their other responsibilities?

Davis: Yes, for me, as far as I can understand, being a small, like a teenager, I remember a lady named like Mrs. Alice Goodtress, of one the ladies who worked there. Others too. They had to actually stand for hours before eating, taking a break. It wasn’t a cool place to work; it was hot. The building was not very comfortable. They had to work. This building, I believe had a large production that it put out, I’m sure it did because it was the only plant that was available.

Jackson: What did they wear?

Davis: They wore the regular cotton dresses. It was no slacks so they had to wear dresses, and I imagine the flat shoes and they, perhaps they had to have the windows open, where those big wide windows would get air, and those big fans, because the building was so hot.

Jackson: And their hair?

Davis: They had just regular; they didn’t tie up their hair. They had just hair just ordinary pressed or whatever style they wanted braided or what have you. But the condition was very, very hot. It was not very comfortable. It was the only plant that supplied money, as far as economics were concerned there. It was called the Ben Archer Plant. It stayed open for years and years and years. And the men had the heavy metal, ironwork to do. They were welding, but it was not the most convenient type of welding. It was severe. It was heavy.

Jackson: Were they paid fairly for their work?

Davis: I would say it was not the max; just for survival, just for survival. Lots of folks had little outside jobs they had. They sold vegetables and some had what you call maids outside. Like on Saturday they worked certain jobs like that. It was a time, was time people really had to work hard to survive. Course the cost of things were not as high as they are now. Course not. But what you had to work for, I mean you really had to work hard to get it.

Jackson: now these folks, what, you were talking about church…

Davis: Yes.

Jackson: What other things brought them joy?

Davis: Well we had what’s called picnics, Annual Picnics, that was in the Creole town, Mount Louis Island. It was an island that was discovered after people learned to get the joy of swimming and of perhaps a half-sail or saith of ocean or water surface of level land. This land I suppose, a person saw having recreation could benefit this land, down there. You could sell drinks, and the pop and the ice cream, and what have you, and candies and what you call popcorns, and make a little vendor’s service out like in New York City. So they opened this for a business for a family enterprise. So when they did this, everbody learned about Mount Louis Island. They would go down in buses. Every church then got the idea of having a picnic at Mount Louis Island. And they would make appointments, dates to have a church come on certain dates, and they had big trucks loads of people. Some had cars. And it was a fun-type thing. One of the thing that I regret when I was a little girl about ten, we were down there, a young man name Peter Mills was drowning. We usually count the children on the picnic bus or cars, but we were told not to go where this flag was because it was high water. And so I don’t know what happened to this young man, he was bout twelve like we were. He went beyond this signal sign, and time to call names and come back to the church. We had been standing count out. We could not find him. His mother and daddy were very dedicated church people. The Hunters. His mother’s name Mrs. Goldie Hunter. And she lost her son Peter. He was only twelve, and he was never found again. We searched and searched and they left him there in the water. But the tides were very high. They were coming in I suppose, and he couldn’t swim, so he went past this signal, and he was drowned.

Jackson: What did the adults do at Mount Louis island?

Davis: On Mondays? Well most of the churches had what you call missionary meetings on Mondays.

Jackson: No, no, no. I mean what did the grown folks do when you went to the picnics? What kind of activities did they do?

Davis: Oh yes. They would watch the kids, number one. They had their own baskets, what do you call it, their own booths where they had the food there. It’s a booth, like a table with food on it. And they had the ice cream packed with ice. The children had their own family ice cream, their own creative ice cream. They had punch and stuff, and they made sandwiches and some barbecue. They barbecued meat. They barbecue the whole day. And they had this place called the little music hall department there. They had, they were allowed to play the box deal. I think it was called the Rock-ola box there. They put a quarter in there and it would play certain songs. You know okay with the church superintendent, and the girls had fun there and the boys had fun. We’d go in bathing and come out bathing and everyone would watch them. There was a division there of course because they were church people. But it was fun. That was one of the main things they had for a yearly recreation there. Go to Mount Louis Island; they were Creole people who banded to the other end and founded this enterprise and swimming area for 9999 and what have you to come there. The result of recreation fun.

Jackson: That’s interesting. I always wanted to know: What exactly is a Creole?

Davis: Well, from what I can understand, it is a type of people who must have the same blood type in order to, when they want to produce children, they have to have the same blood type. In other words they can’t mix. The colors varies from very dark hair, yellow skin, some have blond hair mixed with sandy appearance. But it’s not black; it’s not white. It’s the mixture of just the Creole children that came from the beginning of the Creole wherever it started. It could have started in New Orleans or Pensacola. But mostly it’s French. It comes from the French services. And they migrated here, and they then began to produce siblings. And it grew and grew to families.

Jackson: Were there any social clubs or any, uh, Federated Women’s Club or anything like that in Plateau?

Davis: It started later. Dr. Benjamin F. Baker after his expiration, they built this Benjamin F. Baker Federated Club. Ladies who want to go into groups and have weddings there, banquets. It’s on Catherine Street, there, it’s existing now, but it was after Dr. Baker expired. But it’s functional now. You can have wedding there, receptions there. It’s open now for the public; it’s still open.

Jackson: You talk about your grandfather frequently. Could you please say a few words about the importance of history?

Davis: I think that it should be reserved forever. I don’t think it should ever be frozen because of how they came here and why they came here.

Jackson: They who?

Davis: The descendents. I mean the native from Benin, Africa and west Ghana: Cudjo, Paulette Allen, Charlie Zuma, J.B, Shade, and Ecola Dennison, and Clara Turner which is called Yabashi, and Zuma Levinson which was a Topbar. All the other of the nine were Takars. And those folks should not be frozen. They should be studied. There were people, and they have done great things here. Had it not been for the African-Americans here, I suppose all this food would not have been produced, because the land was not productive. It was a just a wilderness when they came here. They worked very hard.

Jackson: Was it their own land?


Davis: No, this land was given by the Maehers.

Jackson: it was given to them?

Davis: Yes, Cudjo…

Jackson: They owned it?

Davis: No, this was given to them by the Maehers.

Jackson: How did they work that out?

Davis: It was, I suppose, because you know I wasn’t born at the time, bear in mind. But I suppose like any other transaction that was done in that time, that type of transaction, drafting policies and documents, they had more than they could handle. I suppose and I say it from my heart, land, you can’t, you can’t walk over the Earth I mean in one day. So it was just, am I right? lots of land that was just there, barren land so they had nowhere to stay. So it was given to my grandad, Kazula, so he shared the land and gave as much as he could. And he gave the land to be productive. He cleared the land, and he worked very hard with nails that were on the wood in the log truck, log cabin church, a place to worship in and a conference house down in the stand by my brother, Melvin whose 9999. But they had a conference house, like a little shack outside from the original wooden church where they would assemble. Whenever someone didn’t agree with what Cudjo said, they’d all get together and agree. It seemed like Cudjo was their spokesman. He was not the chief or anything, but he was so agreeable, so understanding that we gotta survive, and we must work together.

Jackson: did you know any of the other people beside your grandfather who came off the Clotilda?

Davis: Only the Dennisons. I didn’t know Equlla’s great-grandmother, but I knew the family after the next generation under her. We used to visit them on Sundays. But I didn’t know anybody else, because they were, they were deceased.

Jackson: Are there any other stories about the Clotilde Africans that you are aware of now?

Davis: Repeat that.

Jackson: Are there any other stories about the Clotilde Africans that you are aware of, other than your grandfather?

Davis: No, the only thing that I was not too pleased about is that people are drafting or drawing or sketching, whatever you want to call it—I’m an artist also, I’m a true artist—they are sketching the ship Clotilde. But it’s not the Clotilde, it’s what’s left, the remnants of the Clotilde. The real Clotilde has been wrecked. How can you draw a wrecked picture of what’s not there anymore? So I would say it is like it looks. You can’t make a ship when it’s burned up. So I disagree with someone saying, ‘You should have a replica or you should have a scenario.’ But you can’t because the ship was destroyed because it was illegal. So what are you going to do, do some thing that’s false? So I don’t agree with having any replica of the ship. I mean, what’s left, leave it there and lodge it. Because the real ship will never be anymore. It’s gone forever.

Jackson: Were there any sayings by any of your grandparents that you remember?

Davis: Yes, my granfather Kazula had one thing he stressed most dearly, as we could understand it. He said he was disappointed someone would take something, and more so if he would recognize it was gone. He would always say this as a daily word and like his prayer, he said, “if you” and he used the word “L-I-E”, lie. He said, “if you tell a lie, you will steal.” He was bitterly against, he forbade us to say, “I didn’t do it,” if we did it. We pull a twig down from the cherry tree, he said it you did it, you tell me you did it. He did not want you to tell a false. He was a very hard man on truthfulness, and he didn’t like for you to do things that’s not right. He said whatever you want, you ask for it. That’s why most of his artifacts were stolen because people got away with things such as his gold walking cane, his fur shoes, his jewelries, and lots of things. They came in pairs or groups into him, but they really took a lot of things from his house.

Original Format

VHS

Duration

11 min 53 sec ; 16 min 24 sec

Files

Citation

National African American Archives & Museum, Museum of Mobile, “Martha West Davis Interview Clips,” Mobile Public Library Digital Collections, accessed October 22, 2018, http://digital.mobilepubliclibrary.org/items/show/2191.

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