A U.K. scholar believes she has identified the last survivor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: a woman named Redoshi, who died in 1937 — two years after the death of a man named Cudjo Lewis who was long believed to be the last survivor of slavery in the United States.
As the the New York Times reports, Newcastle University researcher Hannah Durkin first learned about Redoshi in the appendix of a posthumously published manuscript by Zora Neale Hurston, the famed African-American author and anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in the U.S. South, among other places. By digging into Hurston’s unpublished writings, census records, and other sources, Durkin was able to weave together an account of Redoshi’s life, which she published recently in the journal Slavery & Abolition.
Redoshi, according to Durkin’s research, was taken from her village in West Africa and, at 12 years of age, brought over to the United States on the Clotilda, the last recorded slave ship to journey to the U.S. She was purchased by a man named Washington Smith, given the name Sally Smith, and married to an enslaved man. She was put to work on a plantation in Bogue Chitto, Alabama.
“I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe who had a family in Africa,” Redoshi is quoted as saying in a memoir written by civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson, per the Times. “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.”
After slavery was abolished in 1865, Redoshi remained on the Smith plantation — something that was not uncommon among newly emancipated slaves. She stayed there for the rest of her life and never owned her own land.
Durkin also found footage of Redoshi, by then an elderly woman, in a 1938 Department of Agriculture film about the struggles of former slaves who tried to become farmers. Redoshi appears at the start of the clip, sitting on the porch of her home, talking to someone off camera. According to Durkin, this is the only known video footage of a female survivor of slavery.
“Now we know that its 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 said in a statement. “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. 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.”
Read more at the New York Times.