Zora Neale Hurston opens the narrative with an introduction detailing her purpose in seeking out and interviewing Cudjo Lewis. She says that slavery is “the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence,” and many people have written about it, both in support and condemnation. However, almost none of the writers are people who themselves endured slavery. As such, she’s seeking out the last survivor of the infamous Middle Passage to hear his side of the story.
Hurston gives some background information on the men who bought Cudjo and brought him to America in 1859, decades after the international slave trade was abolished in America. Three brothers—Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher—who own a shipyard in Alabama finance the expedition, sending Captain Bill Foster in the ship Clotilda to buy slaves in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Arriving in the Gulf of Guinea, Foster meets with the prince of Dahomey and selects 130 slaves from the barracoon, or stockade. There are many people to choose from, given that the Dahomey habitually declares war on its neighbors and sells the defeated as slaves. Returning to America in seventy days, Foster covertly enters the Mobile Bay; the slaves are hidden on a plantation, and Foster burns the boat to destroy evidence of his journey. The brothers sell some of the slaves but divide the majority among themselves. However, just one year later the Civil War begins, and at its end all the slaves are freed. They band together to build a village called “Africatown,” which is now known as Plateau. Cudjo Lewis still lives in this town.
When Hurston first visits Cudjo, she finds him eating breakfast on his porch; he immediately takes to her because she addresses him by his African name, Kossula. She explains that she wants to hear all his memories, and he begins to tell her about his upbringing in West Africa. His family isn’t rich, but he grows up in a large compound in which the house of his grandfather is surrounded by the houses of his wives and their children. He explains local customs surrounding marriage in his village, wherein a man’s first wife generally selects his subsequent wives and arranges the marriages.
Hurston begins visiting Cudjo regularly, bringing gifts like peaches to ingratiate herself with him. One afternoon, he discusses how the king of his tribe punishes wrongdoing. Every time a man is tried, all the men and boys of the village witness the proceedings. He remembers seeing a man who was planning to poison someone executed during an elaborate ceremony, during which a group of young men dance around the man and perform certain songs before cutting his head off. Another time, a man who actually did murder someone is tied to the corpse of his victim and left in the village square until he dies of exposure.
When Cudjo becomes a teenager, he begins to train as a soldier, and he’s allowed to sit among the village men as they deliberate and make decisions. He’s looking forward to becoming a man and is excited about the prospect of getting married. However, without warning the neighboring kingdom of Dahomey attacks his village in the night. Cudjo witnesses fierce soldiers killing elderly people who can’t run; he himself is taken captive with other young and healthy villagers. For days the captives are marched towards Dahomey. Their captors carry the heads of people they’ve killed in the raid.
In Dahomey, Cudjo and the villagers are locked in the barracoon for three weeks. Other captives are in other barracoons, but they can’t converse because they all speak different languages. Here, Cudjo sees white men for the first time. Eventually, a white man comes to the barracoon and chooses 130 people, who are taken to the ships the next day. For thirteen days, Cudjo and the others are trapped in the hold with little to eat or drink. When they’re finally allowed on the deck, they are severely weakened and can’t see anything but water. This hardship continues for seventy days before they arrive in Alabama. There, the kidnapped villagers have to sneak through the swamp to the Meahers’ plantations in order to avoid government suspicion. Eventually, they are divided among the three brothers.
Cudjo is taken to Captain Jim’s plantation. The work is very difficult, and the agricultural methods are different from the ones to which Cudjo is accustomed. Cudjo is grateful that Jim Meaher treats his slaves more humanely than his brothers, providing them with adequate clothes and shoes. He and the other recent arrivals are grief-stricken not because of the work, but because they are enslaved. For the duration of his enslavement, Cudjo works on one of Meaher’s boats, which transports lumber up the river; carrying lumber on and off the boat is backbreaking work. Eventually, years after the Civil War breaks out, US soldiers reach Mobile and inform the slaves working on Meaher’s boat that they are now free, and can go wherever they want.
After their liberation, all the villagers from the Clotilda reunite from their various plantations to deliberate on their future plans. For some time they hope to buy passage on ships back to Africa, but soon they realize that this is impossibly expensive. Then they decide that they will build a town where they can live together. The villagers choose Cudjo to approach the Meaher brother and ask for a piece of land, in exchange for all their unpaid labor. However, when Cudjo puts this request to Tim Meaher he becomes enraged and says that he treated his slaves well and “derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing.”
Because of this, the villagers have to save money until they have enough to buy land from the Meahers. They establish their own laws and government, choosing two men to be judges. They help each other build houses and name the village Africatown, because “we ant to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go.” After some time, a black preacher begins visiting the villagers and eventually converts them to Christianity, after which they build themselves a church.
Still, Cudjo feels lonely without a family. He asks an Africatown woman, named Abila (or, in America, Seely) to marry him, and she agrees. They set up house together and “do all we kin to make happiness ‘tween ourselves.” Cudjo and Seely have six children, whom they give both African and English names. However, as the children grow up they are ostracized by the surrounding black and white communities, who call them “ig’nant savage” and “make out dey kin to monkey.” Cudjo’s boys often fight with others, and over time develop a dangerous reputation.
As a teenager, Cudjo’s only daughter, Seely, dies of a sudden illness. Cudjo and his wife mourn their daughter deeply. Some years later, Cudjo Jr. is shot in a dispute with a sheriff’s deputy. Although Seely tends to his wounds, he dies hours later. Cudjo mourns that none of his children have ever seen Africa.
After suffering these two tragedies, Cudjo is hit by a train while doing business in Mobile. Although he recovers fairly well and his motor skills are unimpaired, he can no longer do hard labor, so the Africatown residents employ him as the church sexton. Cudjo is named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the railroad, but although the lawyer wins a large settlement the he absconds with the profits, running away to the North.
As if this isn’t enough, Cudjo’s son David is also hit by a train in Mobile and dies of the injuries. Cudjo’s older son, Poe-lee, is furious and wants Cudjo to sue the railroad again, but Cudjo now feels that this is pointless. Poe-lee becomes deeply dissatisfied with life in Africatown due to the constant obstacles and discrimination his family faces. One day, he runs away and is never heard from again. By this point, Cudjo has two children left: his oldest son, Aleck, who is married and has children, and Jimmy. One day Jimmy contracts a sudden fever and dies. He and Seely feel terribly lonely living in their house without any children. After hearing this sad tale, Hurston photographs Cudjo standing in the churchyard among his children’s graves.
One night, Seely wakes Cudjo up, telling him that she’s been dreaming about the children. The next day, she dies suddenly; Cudjo knows that she can no longer live without her children. The next month, Aleck dies as well. Now Cudjo’s only relatives are his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He tells the other residents of Africatown that Seely was like a loan given to him from God, and because of this he can’t complain when he has to give her up.
Hurston concludes by summing up the two months she’s spent interviewing Cudjo. Sometimes they pass whole afternoons eating or working in his garden, without talking about the past. She believes that they have become good friends. When she finally departs, he presents her with a gift of peaches. Hurston is sure that while Cudjo doesn’t fear death, “he is full of trembling awe before the alter of the past.”