Slave heritage is better than none in cradle of baseball talent

February 10, 1991|By Jon Margolis | Jon Margolis,Chicago Tribune

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.

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