Redoshi was 12 when she became one of 116 people taken from West Africa and forced aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have entered U.S. waters. Though the international slave trade was legally abolished in the U.S. during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, an Alabama businessman named Timothy Meaher illegally commissioned the slave-buying mission to Ouimah, a port town in present-day Benin, around 1860.
Now, Sandra E. Garcia at The New York Times reports, new research has identified Redoshi, who died in 1937, as the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade.
Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom pieced together Redoshi’s life using details from unpublished writings of Zora Neale Hurston, along with other historical sourcing. Her findings were recently published in the journal Slavery and Abolition.
“Now we know that [the transatlantic slave trade’s] horrors endured in living memory until 1937, and they allow us to meaningfully consider slavery from a West African woman’s perspective for the first time,” Durkin says in a press release.
Redoshi had been living in a village that she described as “peaceful” when men attacked, killing her father and kidnapping her. She was sold to the crew of the Clotilda where she was forced to marry another enslaved passenger. “I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe who had a family in Africa,” Redoshi later said. “I couldn’t understand his talk and he couldn’t understand me. They put us on block together and sold us for man and wife.”
According to the release, the pair was purchased by Washington Smith, owner of the Bogue Chitto plantation in Dallas County and a founder of the Bank of Selma. For five years, Redoshi was forced to work in the fields and house at the plantation. After emancipation, she continued living on the plantation. She had a daughter, whom she passed along her traditions and culture to. Her husband, known as William or Billy, died in the 1910s or 1920s. Durkin believes Redoshi also owned some land around Bogue Chitto.
Redoshi, who was given the name Sally Smith in the U.S., lived long enough to have a direct link to the Civil Rights movement. She is mentioned in the memoir of Civil Rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson, the woman who invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to Selma, Alabama, to mobilize the local community. That activism culminated in the Selma to Montgomery March, one of the pivotal moments in Civil Rights history.
“The only other documents we have of African women’s experiences of transatlantic slavery are fleeting allusions that were typically recorded by slave owners, so it is incredible to be able to tell Redoshi’s life story,” Durkin reflects in the release. “Rarely do we get to hear the story of an individual woman, let alone see what she looked like, how she dressed and where she lived.”
Historians previously believed the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade was Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis, who died two years before Redoshi in 1935. He was abducted at the same time as Redoshi and also forced to endure the Middle Passage voyage on the Clotilda. He was almost 90 years old when he recounted his life story to Hurston, who shares it in Barracoon, which was posthumously published last year.
Historian Sylviane A. Diou, who wrote her own book about the Clotilda and the descendants of the people abducted by the slavers, tells Garcia at the Times that whether or not Redoshi is the last survivor makes little difference when it comes to understanding this history. “We may still discover people who passed away after Redoshi,” she tells Garcia. “She may very well not be the last, which is of no importance whatsoever. What is crucial is the people’s stories.”