The transatlantic slave trade might be viewed as something from a barbaric and distant era, however, a historian has found evidence its last survivor was alive in living memory.
At Newcastle University, Hannah Durkin had previously identified the last surviving slave captured in Africa in the 19th Century and brought to United States. She had been identified as a woman called Redoshi Smith, who died in 1937.
But now Durkin has discovered that another former slave, Matilda McCrear, had lived three years later.
In January 1940, at the age 83, Matilda died in Selma, Alabama. Her rebellious life story was the last surviving link with slaves abducted from Africa.
John Crear, her 83-year-old grandson had no idea about his grandmother’s historic story.
He had witnessed violence against civil rights marchers in the 1960s in Selma and had seen protesters been addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King.
On discovering his grandmother had been enslaved, he told BBC News: “I had a lot of mixed emotions.
“I thought if she hadn’t undergone what had happened, I wouldn’t be here.
“But that was followed by anger.”
Matilda arrived in Alabama in 1860 on board one of the last transatlantic ships after she had been captured by slave traders in West Africa at the age of two.
Matilda had been bought with her mother, Grace and sister, Sallie by a wealthy plantation owner called Memorable Creagh.
Dr. Durkin says there must have been a dreadful sense of separation, loss, and disorientation for these families. Matilda’s mother had lost her husband and two other sons left behind in Africa.
And in the US she had been powerless to stop two daughters being taken from her, sold to another owner and never seen again.
Matilda, Grace, and Sallie tried to escape the plantation soon after they arrived but they were recaptured.
In 1865, the abolition of slavery brought about emancipation but Matilda’s family still worked the land, caged in poverty as share-croppers. It appears Grace did not ever learn much English.
“But Matilda’s story is particularly remarkable because she resisted what was expected of a black woman in the US South in the years after emancipation. She didn’t get married” Dr. Durkin says.
“Instead, she had a decades-long common-law marriage with a white German-born man, with whom she had 14 children.”
It also seems likely that her partner was Jewish, says Dr. Durkin.
The couple’s relationship was “astonishing” for its era, she says, crossing boundaries of race, class, religion and social expectation.
Matilda also changed her surname from Creagh, the slave owner’s, to McCrear.
She was remarkably strong willed, Dr Durkin says.
“Even though she left West Africa when she was a toddler, she appears throughout her life to have worn her hair in a traditional Yoruba style, a style presumably taught to her by her mother,” says Dr. Durkin, whose research is published in the journal, Slavery and Abolition.
She also carried the facial markings gotten from a traditional practice in Africa.
In her 70s, Matilda set out on another journey, travelling for 15 miles on dirt roads to a county courthouse to make a claim for compensation for her enslavement.
By that time, she was one of the small group of surviving slaves from Africa who seem to have made contact with each other.
There was a settlement of descendants of slaves from the same ship as Matilda near Mobile, Alabama. The West African language of Yoruba was spoken in the settlement.
In the Deep South in the 1930s, this bid for compensation, brought by a poor, black, female, former slave, had little chance of a sympathetic hearing and her claim was dismissed.
But such a provocative idea, reparation for slavery, attracted local press attention and the interviews helped to fill in some details of her life.
With the still raw history of slavery remaining a difficult and dangerous topic, there were no obituaries – and no recognition when she died.
“There was a lot of stigma attached to having been a slave,” Dr. Durkin says.
“The shame was placed on the people who were enslaved, rather than the slavers.”
“I was born in the same house where she died,” said her grandson, Mr Crear.
Nothing much was spoken about Matilda’s life, although Mr Crear’s family knew Matilda was originally from West Africa.
“This fills in a lot of the holes that we have about her,” he says of Dr Durkin’s research.
But he is not surprised by the cruelty Matilda faced.
“From the day the first African was brought to this continent as a slave, we’ve had to fight for freedom,” he says.
He grew up in an era of racial segregation – and his parents put a huge emphasis on education as the way to escape poverty and the “key to changing the world”.
But the history of slavery still lies below the surface and is reflected by the lack of knowledge about his grandmother.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she was so rebellious,” Mr Crear says.
In the civil rights protests, they were singing songs with roots in the years of slavery, he says, tapping into the same “continuous struggle and fights” and pursuing the same goals of “real freedom and equality” like his independent-minded grandmother.
“It’s refreshing to know she had the kind of spirit that’s uplifting,” he says.
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