Cudjo Lewis’s African Name, and Mine

I just finished Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, which tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the Atlantic Slave trade from Africa to America. It is a powerful book. I plan to share thoughts and reflections on it through my blogs, starting with this one on Cudjo Lewis’s African name.

Kossula (Cudjo Lewis) (left) whose life is chronicled in Barracoon by author Nora Zeale Hurston (right).

According to Barracoon, Lewis was born circa 1841 in modern-day Benin to Yoruba parents. At age 18 he was captured by the Dahome, a warring tribe and sold into slavery. He arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1859 aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in America. He endured five years and six months of enslavement before gaining his freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War. He died around 1935 aged 94, making him the last known survivor of the American slave trade.

His life narrative offers readers a powerful story of strength, given all that he endured throughout his life. But his life also represents a profound story of loss. We learn over the course of his narrative that he loses virtually everything he loves due to slavery and its aftermath, starting with his own birth name.

In the book, he shares with Hurston that his name at birth was Kossula given to him by his Yoruba parents Oluwale and Fondlolu. He then describes how, once enslaved, his slave owner, Tim Meaher, couldn’t pronounce his name, so he re-named him Cudjo Lewis, the name he was known by for the remainder of his life.

Over centuries, slavery in America stripped millions of enslaved people like Cudjo Lewis of their African birth names. Alex Haley’s book Roots depicts this in dramatic fashion. In what’s perhaps the most famous and gruesome scene of the book and associated film, Haley’s ancestor, an enslaved Mandinka named Kunta Kinte, is whipped savagely by his slave owner until he verbally gives up his name and accepts the slave name — Toby — which his owner brutally forces upon him.

Historically, slave-owners gave first names to the African-descended people they enslaved, but not last names. Post-civil war, formerly enslaved people gave themselves American last names. My last name, Kearns, is an anglicized form of the Gaelic Ó Céirín, meaning dark or black (a fortuitously accurate descriptor of my family). My last name traces back to my direct paternal great-great grandfather James Augustus [Gus] Kerns who was born enslaved around 1861 and lived in Long Creek Township, Mecklenburg County, NC. According to family history, he gave himself the last name post-slavery because he believed his father to be a plantation owner named Kerns.

All of this history means that for African American genealogists, finding ancestral connections to African names is quite rare. Here are two examples I’ve been lucky enough to uncover through my research.

My great-great-great grandmother Anica Staton was born enslaved around 1832 and lived her life in Palmyra, Halifax County, North Carolina. She married my great-great-great grandfather Joseph Staton and they had at least 9 children including my great-great grandmother Virginia [Jennie] Lee Staton Thigpen Joyner. According to James Beard award-winning author and culinary historian (and DNA cousin) Michael Twitty, names such as Anica, Aneeka, Anniking, Nica, Onnika, Anneky, Annec, which are found among slave records in Virginia and North Carolina, may originate from the Igbo (Nigerian) name Nneka, meaning the mother is superior…or Big Momma.

Halifax County, North Carolina 1880 Census Record for my 3RD great grandmother Anica Staton

My great-great grandmother Elizabeth [Florence] Cumbo Biggs was born around 1866 in Kirby Township, Northampton, North Carolina, to a free family of color. Her paternal Cumbo ancestors represented one of the core tri-racial isolate families who’d been free for many generations and traced their ancestry back to the first Africans to arrive in 17th century Colonial Virginia. According to historian Paul Heinegg, the Cumbos are believed to be one of two free people of color descended families that retained their original African surname. The other is Mozingo.

Northampton County, North Carolina 1880 Census Record for my 2nd great grandmother Elizabeth [Florence] Cumbo

According to Tim Hashaw in his book, “The Birth of Black America”, the Cumbo surname is associated with Angolans who arrived in Jamestown in the early 17th century. He asserts that Cumbo is possibly derived from Kambol, a royal name of Ndongo.

Through my own research, I’ve gathered additional data points to support Heinegg and Hashaw’s assertion. While navigating a Google Map of Angola, I discovered a village in the north of the country named Cumbo. This could be another potential source of the name.

I also found this trans-Atlantic slave trade database which lets you search the names of enslaved Africans brought to the New World. Type in Cumbo and review the results for yourself. There are Cumbos, Combos, Kumbos, Cumbahs from Angola, Cameroon, Congo.

What are the connections to African names that you’ve uncovered through your research?

Blogging on Race, Culture, History and Genealogy.

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