“Skin color seems to be decoration. The real person is one on the inside.”
That phrase was one of many life lessons Israel Lewis shared during a brief recess from teaching some youngsters about art on a Friday afternoon. The class was held at Monarch Academy in Killeen.
The 82-year-old Killeen resident’s story begins with his ancestors who he said were part of the last group of West Africans illegally smuggled on the Clotilda. It has been reported to be the last slave ship in America.
The ship, which mostly operated in secret, was used to smuggle men, women and children into America from Africa. It even ran decades after Congress banned the importation of slaves, and was intentionally sunk in 1860 to hide evidence of its use, according to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
In May 2019, the Clotilda was discovered by archaeology firm Search Inc. off the shores of Alabama. The firm was tasked to help by the state’s historical commission to investigate the hulk, according to the National Geographic Society.
The ship’s journey “represented one of the darkest eras of modern history” and the wreck provides “tangible evidence of slavery,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, through the Associated Press.
Lewis said four of his ancestors — three men and one female — were among the 110 slaves on the ship.
“Kujo was my great-great grandpa. Charlee and Potee were my great-great uncles and Kanko was my great-great first cousin,” Lewis said.
Lewis was born in Greensboro, Alabama, in 1937 and said he recalled the Civil Rights movement.
“I experienced it on a different approach, we didn’t fight,” Lewis said.
He remembered hearing the late Martin Luther King Jr. speak on several occasions and said he “had much respect for him.”
“He had a caring spirit … he had respect for himself,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ desire to be part of the movement was short lived as he was drafted by the U.S. Army in August 1961.
He served 10 years ending his military career in law enforcement. He also served a tour in Vietnam.
These days, Lewis, whose full African name is Mosi Dike Kwaku Kazula, spends his time teaching African art and sharing his family’s history.
His advice to younger generations?
“It’s their responsibility to discover who they are and what they are,” he said. “They have to do that no matter what other people say because they’re going to be the ones that have to live their life.”