Honoring The Legacy Of The Clotilda Descendants | Crooked Media
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February 07, 2023
What A Day
Honoring The Legacy Of The Clotilda Descendants

In This Episode

  • To kick off our series on Black History Month, What A Day host Juanita Tolliver sits down with Veda Tunstall and Emmett Lewis, descendants of enslaved people brought to Alabama aboard the Clotilda, the last known slave ship in American history, and whose stories are featured in the Netflix documentary “Descendant.”


Show Notes:


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Juanita Tolliver: It’s Friday, February 3rd. I’m Juanita Tolliver. And this is What A Day. This Black History Month, the What A Day team is excited to bring you stories about Black history that are happening in real time. And we’re excited to kick things off with a conversation about the Netflix documentary Descendant. This film outlines the search and discovery of the Clotilda, the last known ship to arrive in the United States illegally carrying enslaved Africans. After a century of secrecy and speculation, the 2019 discovery of the ship turns attention toward the descendant community of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, and presents a moving portrait of a community actively grappling with and fighting to preserve their heritage while examining what justice looks like today. The film won a special jury prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and I had an opportunity to speak with two Clotilda descendants. Take a listen to our conversation. So today, I’m joined by Veda Tunstall, a Clotilda descendant, and Emmett Lewis, a direct descendant of Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, the last known survivor of the Clotilda, Emmett and Veda. Welcome to What A Day. 


Emmett Lewis: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 


Veda Tunstall: Thank you. 


Juanita Tolliver: All right, y’all. So I have watched Descendant a few times now, and every single time I watch it, I’m struck by the fact that this is the first time that a lot of us in the audience are witnessing Black history being uncovered in real time. And and that’s even though this story was passed down through your families, through the Africatown community for, what, more than 160 years? And so can you tell me what it felt like filming this documentary but also witnessing the world learn about this piece of Black history for the first time? Veda, why don’t you start us off? 


Veda Tunstall: The filming was it didn’t really feel like I was doing anything. We were just talking with Margaret and it just felt so organic and casual. So there was nothing special about filming. But the way the world is receiving this film has blown my mind. 


Juanita Tolliver: What about you, Emmett? 


Emmett Lewis: In the beginning it was like that little fear of telling your family’s story to the wrong person. So, you know, I had a little fear of just speaking out on my family’s story now because I felt like it would get in the wrong hands. But more along was that was my gold, that was my treasure. Like, that’s what’s me. So I didn’t want to tell their story. But like I tell everybody, I was fortunate enough to you know meet Margaret. And Margaret was one of those people that make you feel like a friend instead of a person they she interviewing. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right and Veda when you talk about the world receiving it, I know what my response has been. I told you before we started recording, count me as one of the impacted individuals. What are some of the big moments that you recall as you have been talking to more and more people about this that really stuck with you? 


Veda Tunstall: The most common thing I hear is thank you for telling your story. People come to us after a screening and they’re like, thank you so much. So many people are not able to know where their family came from and it’s like they join us in this. So I’m thankful that we know it and that I feel almost guilty sometimes that we are able to know where we came from, as so many people who look like us aren’t. 


Juanita Tolliver: Mmm. 


Veda Tunstall: But people are so thankful. That’s the common theme is thank you. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. And Emmett, you talked about the fear of telling the story. And let’s be real. The threat that the people of Africatown had over their heads in Alabama since they were dropped off on the shores has been a constant undercurrent, the threat of violence, the threat of lynching. But we know that your ancestor Cudjoe spoke to Zora Neale Hurston about his experiences in 1927. Tell me about the bravery and risks that Cudjoe took in even speaking to Zora, but also the way that you were introduced to Cudjoe’s story. 


Emmett Lewis: What I think was brave about Cudjoe’s life is just him being himself. And if you pay attention to the book, like Zora said that it took a while before Cudjoe talked to her. 


Juanita Tolliver: And she brought gifts, she brought watermelon– 


Emmett Lewis: Yes, yes. 


Juanita Tolliver: –she brought peaches. She brought a lot to coax– 


Emmett Lewis: Yeah. 


Juanita Tolliver: –that out of him, right? 


Emmett Lewis: Yes. And there’s more along like with the same thing what I say is just the fact of telling someone about yourself and knowing everything that you go through in your life, like you’re not doing it for recognition, you’re not doing it to gain anything besides helping your people or making sure that your people survive even after you. So that was mostly you know what I picked up from Cudjoe while I was young. Like I said, I got my story from my father. I got my story in a graveyard. I got–


Juanita Tolliver: Mm hmm. 


Emmett Lewis: You know, I got my stories just sitting around talking to my father so I connected more with Cudjoe become my father always told me I was a leader, always told me I was a warrior, always told me I had a warrior blood. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: We’re here and all of that. And then hearing the story of Cudjoe and hearing how his people chosed him to be a leader, that made me want to submit myself more to trying to be like my ancestor. 


Emmett Lewis: Right. And you talk about the graveyard. I’m a scared girl like I’m scared of ghosts. But one thing you said in the documentary that stuck with me was like, No, you should always be able to talk to your ancestors, right? Like, that was a constant theme through this entire project. 


Emmett Lewis: Yes. I never felt alone. And I always felt like if I needed anyone to talk to, that I didn’t want an opinion or I didn’t want any judgment. Go to the graveyard. And I know a lot of people laugh when I say it, but it’s sort a similar to that Lion King story, like just Simba looking into the cloud at the Kings before him. That’s how it feels for me. [laugh]


Juanita Tolliver: That’s not funny at all. That’s the realest part of this. The other real thing, just to paint a picture for our listeners, Africatown was a thriving community built by Black people who knew more about being free than enslaved and Veda, can you describe Africatown of the past compared to the experience now in Africatown when we know the injustice environmentally with the industries that have moved into the community and taken over some of this historic land? 


Veda Tunstall: Yeah, Africatown. It was a whole community. It had everything it needed. It had a doctor’s office, it had barber shops and grocery stores and schools and churches and everything a community needed. It was self-sustaining and it was self-governed until it was incorporated into the city of Mobile, I believe in the fifties or sixties, in the 1950s or ’60s. So this is very recent history. But the violence takes a different form. You’ve heard the pen is mightier than the sword. So right now we got people down at City Hall with the pen and that’s where the violence takes place. We have all this industry that surrounds the community that is steadily encroaching, like you can feel it going inward and just making the community smaller and smaller. There are not as many houses as they’re used to be. And also that the Meaher family, you know, our ancestors’s enslavers also still own land–


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: –in Africatown and they also lease it to some of this industry that’s polluting the community and is growing. But even when land becomes available, then you have to be concerned about what it’s zoned as. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: Because in order for the community to grow, you know we want to see houses there. I want to see people live there again. I always say my ancestors did not found a tourist destination. They founded a residential community. 


Juanita Tolliver: A self-sufficient residential community. 


Veda Tunstall: Yes. So you know there is a lot that goes into bringing this community back in its little bitty steps. Little bitty steps. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. And I got to confess, as the documentary progressed and we get to the part where the Clotilda is found and they present the community with even a rendering of the conditions on the ship, I had a lot of emotions like I was feeling so much because I think those emotions were compounded by the fact that a lot of the white local leaders or reporters or representatives from National Geographic even were excited and had this glee in their voice, and it seemed misplaced and detached and disconnected from the humanity of the Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved and brutalized through this process. Emmett, what were your reactions as this new physical piece of Black history was found?


Emmett Lewis: Uh V, you know how I am so. [laugh] 


Juanita Tolliver: Let it out. It’s a safe space Emmett, say it.


Veda Tunstall: Say it, say it. It’s a safe space. 


Emmett Lewis: So when I first came aboard on the film, that was the major question was about that ship. And after I said that I would like to go touch the ship and feel what my ancestors felt. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: I said right after that the ship still didn’t matter to me. I said it was only the fact of being able to touch something that my ancestors touched. That was my only concern about it now– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: Right now it feels like we were shot with a gun and the people are worshipping the gun instead of thinking about the victim. 


Juanita Tolliver: Mmm. I think that part is what is getting at me, because like you said, the connection of where your ancestors were, feeling it, seeing it, it was important, but it should not be the focal point. And the other thing I recognized from that moment, Veda, was that you had a very different reaction from your mother. So I feel like there’s some generational pieces here because I think at one of the community celebrations, your mom, Veda, she said, quote, “I feel completion and that healing has begun.” And I was like, hold up, right? Like and then you came through Veda with your reaction. Talk me through your reaction to the Clotilda being found and why you think you and your mother had very different responses. 


Veda Tunstall: When I saw that– 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. 


Veda Tunstall: I saw my grandparents, you know, my grandparents that I know, I basically– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: –could see those grandparents in that position in the hold of that ship. And I lost it. Now, these are my third great grandparents who were depicted on that ship. 


Juanita Tolliver: Okay. 


Veda Tunstall: So it really struck me, like you said, there was the glee like this is a story to a lot of people, but it’s not a story to us. This is our history. So to get to my mother– 


Juanita Tolliver: [laughing] She said heavy sigh. Oh, I’m with you. 


Veda Tunstall: [laughing] At the community center. When we when they unveiled that depiction of the Clotilda, when we sat in that meeting, I saw all the politicians who were there and who don’t show up unless there are cameras out there. So that was a big deal when the ship was found. Everybody you know wanted to be there. So when I was sitting there, I could literally feel the energy and I could tell who was who and what people’s intentions were. So my mother is the forever optimist and she believes in all the good in people and everybody has potential to be good. I believe that too to a certain extent. But in that moment, that’s not what I was feeling. So I was feeling, who’s here to benefit and who’s here to profit and how we fit into that. And that’s when I said, I feel like we’re a part of it. I don’t want us to be a part of it. I don’t want us to be along for the ride. So my mother doesn’t quite see it like that. She’s a little bit more agreeable– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: Than I am. [laughing]


Juanita Tolliver: No, and I appreciate your candor about that and the reminder that this ain’t just about the ship, right? Like it’s also about the Meaher family. We have a lot more to cover in this conversation. And we’ll be right back after this ad. [music break]. 




Juanita Tolliver: One thing I appreciated was that Kamau Sadiki the founder of Diving with a Purpose, the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine archeologists from the Slave Wrecks Project, he was explicitly clear and said, You all the descendants have to define justice. So I want to hear from both of you. What has your community come up with so far? Emmett, kick us off. 


Emmett Lewis: Ooh, you asked me first. I’m I’m just a community member. Like I tell everybody, I’m just a community member that’s not afraid to speak out about my opinions. So when it comes to what’s going on now, is more along of still at the starting line for me. A lot of people can say they see progress, but I don’t see the progress in the areas that I would like to see. And maybe they’re selfish, but this is my community. I feel what I feel. And I don’t want Africatown to turn into a tourist attraction. I don’t want Africatown to turn into a museum. I’m not saying that we can’t benefit from tourism. I’m not saying that we can’t benefit from museums or any of that. But the first thing people have to understand is this is a community, a still thriving community. We are not– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: –we’re not as successful as we used to be, but we are still here. We still surviving. So when you come down here with tourism, understand that you’re not riding through a abandoned neighborhood. You’re not riding through a museum or a safari. We’re not animals. We’re not a zoo. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: You’re parking in front of our houses while we’re outside in our boxers and tanktops and checking the mailbox so– 


Juanita Tolliver: Just living life. Yeah. 


Emmett Lewis: Yeah. So it’s becoming to the point where we have people in this community that’s being afraid. And I’m like one of the few, as they say, powerful voices from out here. So I get all of that coming to me on a daily any time because my house is right here in the center plaza. And these are people that are everyday normal people that– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: –don’t feel like they have the power to go to the politicians, they don’t have the power to just speak out. And even in that sense, when I get overwhelmed with the politics inside of it, that’s why I have V. So that’s why I kind of laugh when you say you would start off with me because V answers those questions better than me. I discussed everything with V. Me and her, we make sure we’re on the same page. 


Juanita Tolliver: So let’s talk through this tag team from your side Veda. Like I know that Emmett clearly you are explicitly clear in what you want in your definition of progress. Veda, how do you square that with your own perspective, but also presenting that to the powers that be for lack of a better term? 


Veda Tunstall: Yeah. And Emmett does not give himself enough credit. Um.


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: You know. 


Juanita Tolliver: Because I’m like, don’t downplay anything you just said friend. 


Veda Tunstall: No. I get it. And, you know, the only thing that happens is Emmett and I just feel the same about a lot of things. And that’s why it’s so easy for us to talk, because we definitely will tag team and we agree on what we want to see, the community where we want to see tourism go or not go, you know whatever the case is, we have very, very similar views on that. Now, as far as justice goes, I don’t know that there is justice. I still believe that because the people who did this, the Meaher family, Timothy Meaher a few generations ago–


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: He’s not here. So we can’t punish him. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Veda Tunstall: You know, the current Meahers, I don’t feel like punishing them or not punishing them but making them pay. I don’t feel like that’s really justice. So for me, I feel at this point, I feel like it’s moving on. 


Juanita Tolliver: Interesting. 


Veda Tunstall: It’s not really let bygones be bygones or anything. Timothy Meaher is not off the hook like his name is forever going to be mud. But this always leads into a reparations conversation. And I don’t know the answer to the reparations question. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. There are a couple of other moments in this documentary that I have to ask you all about. Emmett, one of them was explicitly an interaction you had with a random white guy who walked into the graveyard while you were standing at Cudjoe’s plot. And he asked you a couple of questions at the end of the conversation and he was like, okay, cool. And walked off. And I was like, that’s how you’re engaging with this history. That’s how you’re engaging with a direct descendant, like tell me about how you experienced that interaction and what you actually want people to experience when they engage with your family’s history? 


Emmett Lewis: With that experience it showed me exactly what has been done throughout the years with this story is you can catch a few people that they’re interested and like, Oh, okay, this is a story about this. And then they go get the story however way they get it. And like you said, we had a conversation. The conversation was actually longer than what was recorded. 


Juanita Tolliver: Of course. 


Emmett Lewis: But the tone of that conversation, it was exactly how it was in the movie. That’s just how that conversation went. It was no deeper than that. So after just talking to the guy and listening to him, I was expecting some deeper questions or something more– 


Juanita Tolliver: Something. 


Emmett Lewis: Yeah. Something more along the side of any intentions of what he had, but instead I just got a few pictures taken of Cudjoe’s grave and he proved to me that no matter how big the story is, that people are still going to look at it, get what they want out of it, and keep moving forward, not worry–


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Emmett Lewis: –about anything else concerning the story once I walk off from it. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. I do think that um storytelling, though, was the undercurrent for me watching this. It’s speaking to you two today’s, and it was the undercurrent to keeping the history alive for the 160 plus years that we didn’t know about it until 2018 with Barracoon being published. It is also key to the history of your family. So can you both tell me about how you plan to keep telling the story and more so how you plan to protect the history?


Emmett Lewis: Well uh for me, I look at things a little differently. Like I said, my father is my biggest inspiration. That’s my God. That’s who I look up to. That’s my superhero, my batman. So, you know, before my father died, he tried to teach me everything that he felt you should teach a man. But all that I got out of it was being a great father. So with that being said, I’m blessed with having three little girls, and I finally have my little boy, my junior, and I am blessed to have girls that love to hear me talk. I plan on keeping the story going by upholding the traditions that I felt my father had. I’m going to keep teaching my kids. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. 


Emmett Lewis: I’m going to try to explain to them to the best of my ability of what their ancestors mean. But like I tell everybody, you’re going to gather your own feelings and your own thoughts of your ancestors. Like I look at my ancestors as how I look at my father. So that’s why I look at him so strongly. And I can only hope that with me teaching my kids this that they can look at it the same way I did. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. 


Veda Tunstall: Yeah. And for me, my mother, like Emmett talks about talking to the ancestors. And my mother has done that in a different way. It’s just something I always grew up with. My daughter passed away six years ago. 


Juanita Tolliver: I’m so sorry for your loss. 


Veda Tunstall: Thank you. I don’t know if that makes her an ancestor now, but very connected to my daughter. My son is now very interested in everything there is to learn, so I’m continuing to pass it on to him. And everything I learn, I’m teaching him. But that’s just how we’re keeping the history alive is just continuing to talk. 


Juanita Tolliver: It’s the same way your ancestors did it for 160 years. It seems tried and true at this point, and I’m just so grateful again for your time, for your candor, your honesty, your realness. [laughing] Like will never be forgotten. Thank you again for sharing your history with me and with our listeners. And thanks for joining What A Day. 


Emmett Lewis: Thank you, guys. 


Veda Tunstall: Thank you for having us. [music break]


Juanita Tolliver: That was my conversation with Veda Tunstall and Emmett Lewis. Clotilda descendants and featured voices in the Netflix documentary Descendant. To learn more and to support this work, visit descendantfilm.com and watch the film on Netflix. That’s all for today’s show. Thanks so much for listening. [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media, it’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jocey Coffman, and our executive producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka. 


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