By Grace Thornton/The Alabama Baptist
MOBILE, Ala. (BP) — The dirt road snaked long and lonely out to Cudjo’s cabin on the outskirts of Mobile as Mary Ellen Caver tried to mentally prepare to meet the former slave.
Caver had lived as a single missionary among a tribe in Nigeria before coming home to Alabama. For years, she had been accustomed to the unusual; this time, she had been told it would be a crazy man.
The day before, as Caver had walked out of a church in south Alabama, she had met a group of black men waiting in the parking lot. They knew she had been a missionary to Africa, and they wanted her to put some of their questions to rest.
“There’s a man in our church, and we think he’s crazy,” Caver was told. “He tells all these parables and stories, and he talks in a different language and claims he comes from Africa.”
Caver told the men that even if the man was from Africa, the chances of him speaking the same dialect she had learned in Nigeria were one in a million.
They didn’t listen.
It was the eve of the Depression era when Caver’s car rolled to a stop at Cudjo’s gate. Having returned from the mission field, she had begun traveling around Alabama to lead training sessions for the state Baptist convention’s Sunday School Department. That’s what she was doing the day the men met her outside the church.
“She traveled all over by bus and would have only milkshakes — she was not going to cost the Alabama Baptist Convention a great deal of money,” said Eugenia Brown, who led sessions for the Alabama convention’s Training Union Department at the time and often was at the same events with Caver.
Caver took Alabama Baptists’ missions money seriously – she knew those dollars had sent her to Nigeria and had kept her there.
But she had no idea that her missions work would lead to a divine appointment back in Alabama.
That day at Cudjo’s cabin, Caver opened the gate, and from his porch Cudjo greeted her in his native dialect – the language of the Dahomey people, the tribe she had been sent to in Africa years earlier.
Caver answered Cudjo.
And he erupted with a reply not to her, but to God: “I thank You, Lord – I knowed You would.”
Bound and sold
What Cudjo “knowed” God would do harkened back to when he was a young Dahomey man chained to a long, single-file line of other people headed toward a slave ship years earlier. He had just had his teeth sharpened, a rite of passage for the Dahomy people that he had become a man in the tribe.
But then an enemy tribe captured him, and he was sold and bound for Alabama.
Cudjo’s story would be told in the December 1931 issue of National Geographic – he was the last survivor of the last cargo of slaves captured in Africa and sold in the States.
The article would tell how the ship rolled in the swells and crept into Mobile Bay one night to sneak Cudjo and others into Alabama.
And it would tell how a traveling circus brought the nearest glimpse of home. Cudjo was working in the field with other Dahomey tribesman when they heard the elephants trumpeting as they passed through. Thoughts of Africa swelled in their hearts and they wanted to run after the elephants.
For days afterward, they were happy, Cudjo told National Geographic.
But that fleeting happiness didn’t touch the lifetime of homesickness.
It also didn’t touch Cudjo’s greatest joy — he found Jesus in Alabama.
For decades at Union Missionary Baptist Church he had served by lighting the lamps and ringing the bell, the whole time praying that he would live long enough to hear that his people in Africa had heard the Gospel.
And then Caver appeared at his gate, telling him that she had been the one to go.
“He asked if she would go in his kitchen and look in the pie safe and get the jar that was in there,” Brown recounted. “The only thing in that pie safe was a bowl of flour gravy and a jar with coins in it.”
When Caver took the coins to him, Cudjo said, “I want you to take these and give them so my people in Africa will know more about Jesus.”
Caver tried to talk him out of it, but Cudjo wasn’t swayed. God had done the seemingly impossible – the very thing he had prayed for – and he wanted to give everything he had in return.
‘A beautiful story’
Sometime later at a different training session in Mobile, Caver asked Brown if she would drive her out to visit Cudjo’s grave.
“I said, ‘Who?’ and she said, ‘You haven’t heard of Cudjo?’ and I said no,” Brown said. “And she said, ‘Well, he has a beautiful story. You need to hear it.'”
And Caver told it to Brown.
When the two Alabama Baptist staffers arrived at Cudjo’s grave, they found a crude headstone made out of concrete.
“The information had been scratched on there,” Brown said.
It had his name, Cudjo Kossola Lewis, and the fact that he had been born in Africa.
“It was simple,” Brown said. “And down below it, it said, ‘I believes in prayer.'”
Brown is now in her 90s and Caver has been gone since 1956.
But the “incredible” story of Cudjo’s answered prayer got dusted off when Lonette Berg, executive director of the Alabama Baptist Historical Commission, got a call to pick up some historical mementos for preservation.
“We stored them at the special collection [at Samford University in Birmingham], and they included some mementos from Mary Ellen Caver,” Berg recounted.
One letter from the mission field stood out to Berg, and she planned to read it and tell Caver’s missions story at the Alabama Baptist State Convention annual meeting in 2016.
The letter was “ruminating in my mind” when Berg was staying with Brown one night in Owassa, 100 miles northeast of Mobile. “We were having dinner and I asked her if she wanted to hear what I was thinking about sharing at the convention,” Berg said. “I mentioned Mary Ellen, and she said, ‘Oh, I love Miss Mary Ellen. She was such a great lady.'”
Brown began to tell Berg the story of Caver’s trip out to Cudjo’s cabin and about their trip to his grave.
“It was emotional to hear it,” Berg said. “I was just overcome.”
Brown rummaged around in a drawer and came back with the National Geographic that had been sent to her by a relative in Texas not because of Cudjo but just because it had a section featuring Alabama.
“God took all these parts from Africa, Mobile, Texas, Owassa and Mary Ellen’s church in north Alabama and put them all together to tell this incredible story,” Berg said.
“It’s an amazing, meaningful story. All these parts to me are encouraging — that God is weaving our story, whether it’s big global things or just a visit with one person.”
Grace Thornton is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist (thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.