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.
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SOURCE: Baptist Press; The Alabama Baptist, Grace Thornton