The last known survivor of the last American slave ship died in 1940—75 years after the abolition of slavery. Her name was Matilda McCrear.
When she first arrived in Alabama in 1860, she was only two years old. At the time of her death, Matilda had experienced civil war, reconstruction, the laws of Jim Crow, the First World War, the Great Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe.
The facial scars on her left cheek – which are preserved in photographs – indicate that she came from the Yoruba people of West Africa. His first name was “Àbáké”, which means “born to be loved by all”. She and her mother and sisters were captured from their home by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and taken to the slave port of Ouidah in present-day Benin. There, Captain William Foster and his crew illegally purchased his family and more than 100 others for traffic in Alabama on the Clotilda, the last known American slave ship (the importation of people enslaved had been illegal in the United States since 1808).
Once in Alabama, a famous slave owner named Memorable Walker Creagh bought Àbáké, his mother and 10-year-old sister to work on his plantation. Her two older sisters went to another plantation and she never saw them again. In the Creagh plantation, “Àbáké” became “Matilda”, later known as “Tilly”. Her mother became “Gracie” and her sister became “Sallie”.
When the civil war ended five years later, she and the other members of her family were free, but they had no way of returning home.
The new “last” survivor of Clotilda
Sylviane A. Diouf, Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University and author of African dreams in Alabama: the slave ship Clotilda and the story of the last Africans brought to America, don’t think it’s useful to speak of people as “the last” Clotilda survivor. This is because this designation is constantly changing as new research emerges.
READ MORE: The wreck of the last American slave ship is finally identified in Alabama
Scholars have long viewed Cudjo Lewis, or Kossola, as the last survivor. He lived in Africatown, a community of Clotilda, Alabama survivors, until 1935. Public awareness about him increased in 2018 when Harper Collins published an unreleased interview with Zora Neale Hurston. The following year, Hannah Durkin, professor of literature and film at the University of Newcastle, identified Sally Smith, or Redoshi, as the last survivor because she died in 1937.
Diouf identified another survivor, Matilda McCrear, National GeographicCover of February 2020. On March 19, Durkin published an article in the journal Slavery and abolition declaring that Matilda had lived even longer than Sally Smith. Diouf then revealed more information about Matilda for National Geographic. According to research by researchers, Matilda died in Selma, Alabama, in 1940 at the age of 82. She is survived by a large family that includes living grandchildren.
Matilda’s granddaughter, Eva Berry, “was 12 when Matilda died,” says Diouf. This means that she was old enough to remember hearing her grandmother talk about her captivity on a slave ship, her life in slavery and emancipation. “To think that there is still someone alive today whose grandmother was on a slave ship … it’s really, I think, unique.”
Mathilde was about seven years old when slavery ended. His family – which now included his stepfather Guy, a fellow student Clotilda Creagh Plantation Survivor – based in Athens, Alabama. As Gracie and Guy did not speak much English, the young Matilda helped translate for her parents when they went to the local store. Over the years, his family name has grown from “Creagh” – the name of his former slave – to “McCrear”, his favorite name.
Matilda gave birth to her first child, Eliza, at the age of 14 while living in Athens. The father was a white man, and given the prevalence of white male sexual violence against black women and girls in the south at that time, the pregnancy may have been thought of as rape. She gave birth to two other Métis children during this period in Athens.
After her mother died in 1879, Matilda, now the mother of three in her early 20s, moved to Martin Station, Alabama, with her children. There she met and started a relationship with Jacob Schuler, a white German immigrant. For 17 years, they had seven children together.
“They did not live together,” says Diouf. “It would not have been done at that time at the time. But they had this long relationship for 17 years and she never married. He never married either … And his children knew him. “
“Her life story really reminds us of how recently the slave trade has ended,” says Durkin. “And of course, his acts of bravery, including his request for reparations, help highlight the links between slavery and civil rights movement.”
Looking for repairs
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Durken and Diouf identified Matilda in a 1931 article in The Selma Times-Journal. Informed by her grandchildren that the First World War veterans had just received their overdue premiums, Matilda had traveled the 17 miles to Selma to ask her to also receive compensation for having been kidnapped and brought to the country in as a toddler. To prove that she was from Africa, she showed the marks on her cheek.
The judge refused any compensation, as did Timothy Meaher, the slave owner who organized the illegality Clotilda voyage, had refused repairs to survivors of the ship in 1865. Cudjo Lewis told Zora Neale Hurston that when he asked Timothy Meaher for repairs for the Clotilda survivors, he replied, “Crazy do you think I will give you goods on top of the property? I took my slaves and derefo’ I owe nothing to the dem. ”
Even with so much stolen, Cudjo Lewis and many others Clotlida survivors were able to purchase land to build their own community of Africatown near Mobile, Alabama. The city has experienced economic hardship over the past two decades; it survived Hurricane Katrina and dangerous levels of industrial pollution, notably from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. After the discovery in 2019 of ClotlidaThe wreck, Africatown hoped to generate tourism revenue from an upcoming exhibition on the ship.
However, attempts to revive Africatown have received little attention from the Meaher family, who still own a lot of land in Alabama. In an interview for National GeographicFrom February 2020 cover, Timothy Meaher’s great-grandson, Robert Meaher, wondered if the ClotildaThe wreck is real, pointed out that Timothy never went to prison for his crimes of the slave trade (many white men did not) and tried to justify the crimes by saying that Cudjo Lewis became a Christian in the United States. He also said that he was not open to meeting the survivors of the ship.