The last known survivor of the last U.S. 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. By the time she died, Matilda had lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, World War I, the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
The facial scars on her left cheek—which are preserved in photographs—indicate she came from the Yoruba people of West Africa. Her given name was “Àbáké,” meaning “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 her family and over 100 others to traffic into Alabama on the Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship (the importation of enslaved people had been illegal in the U.S. since 1807).
Once in Alabama, a prominent slaveowner named Memorable Walker Creagh purchased Àbáké, her mother and her 10-year-old sister to work on his plantation. Her two oldest sisters went to another plantation, and she never saw them again. On Creagh’s 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 her remaining family members were free, but they had no way to return home.
The New ‘Last’ Clotilda Survivor
Sylviane A. Diouf, a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and author of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, doesn’t think it’s helpful to talk about people as being “the last” Clotilda survivor. That’s because this designation is always changing as new research emerges.
For a long time, scholars considered Cudjo Lewis, or Kossola, to be the last survivor. He lived in Africatown, a community of Clotilda survivors in Alabama, until 1935. Public awareness of him rose in 2018 when Harper Collins released a previously unpublished interview that Zora Neale Hurston conducted with him. The next year Hannah Durkin, a lecturer in literature and film of Newcastle University, identified Sally Smith, or Redoshi, as the last survivor because she died in 1937.
Diouf identified another survivor, Matilda McCrear, in National Geographic’s February 2020 cover story. On March 19, Durkin published a paper in the journal Slavery & Abolition stating Matilda had lived even longer than Sally Smith. Diouf then revealed further information about Matilda for National Geographic. According to the scholars' research, Matilda passed away in Selma, Alabama in 1940 at age 82. She is survived by a big family that includes living grandchildren.
Matilda’s granddaughter Eva Berry “was 12 when Matilda died,” Diouf says. That means she was old enough to remember hearing her grandmother talk about her captivity on a slave ship, life in slavery and emancipation. “To think that there’s still somebody alive today whose grandmother was on a slave ship…it’s really, I think, unique.”
Matilda was about seven when slavery ended. Her family—which now included her stepfather Guy, a fellow Clotilda survivor on Creagh’s plantation—settled in Athens, Alabama. Since Gracie and Guy didn’t speak much English, young Matilda helped translate for her parents when they went to the local store. Over the years, her surname evolved from “Creagh”—the name of her former enslaver—to “McCrear,” her preferred name.
Matilda gave birth to her first child, Eliza, at age 14 while living in Athens. The father was a white man, and given the prevalence of white male sexual violence toward black women and girls in the south at that time, the pregnancy may have been conceived in rape. She gave birth to two more mixed-race children during that period in Athens.
After her mother’s death in 1879, Matilda, now a mother of three in her early 20s, moved to Martin Station, Alabama with her children. There, she met and began a relationship with Jacob Schuler, a white German immigrant. Over 17 years, they had seven children together.
“They didn’t live together,” Diouf says. “That would have been not done at the time in that place. 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 brings home just how recently the slave trade ended," Durkin says. "And of course her acts of bravery, including her claim for reparations, help to highlight the links between slavery and the civil rights movement.”
In Search of Reparations
Durken and Diouf identified Matilda in a 1931 article in The Selma Times-Journal. Informed by her grandsons that WWI veterans had just received their overdue bonuses, Matilda had walked the 17 miles to Selma to request that she receive some compensation, too, for being kidnapped and brought to the country as a toddler. As proof that she was from Africa, she showed the marks on her cheek.
The judge denied her any reparations just as Timothy Meaher, the slaveowner who organized the illegal Clotilda journey, had denied reparations to the ship’s survivors back in 1865. Cudjo Lewis told Zora Neale Hurston that when he asked Timothy Meaher about reparations for the Clotilda survivors, he responded: “Fool do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothin.”
Even with so much stolen from them, Cudjo Lewis and many other Clotlida survivors were able to purchase land to build their own community of Africatown near Mobile, Alabama. The town has struggled economically in the past couple of decades; it has survived Hurricane Katrina and dangerous levels of industrial pollution, including from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. After the 2019 discovery of the Clotlida’s wreckage, Africatown hoped to draw tourism revenue from an upcoming exhibit about the ship.
Still, attempts to revive Africatown have received little attention from the Meaher family that still owns a lot of land in Alabama. In an interview for National Geographic’s February 2020 cover story, Timothy Meaher’s great-grandson Robert Meaher questioned whether the Clotilda’s wreckage is real, emphasized that Timothy never went to prison for his slave-trading crimes (many white men didn’t) and tried to justify the crimes by saying that Cudjo Lewis became a Christian in the U.S. He also said he is not open to meeting with the ship’s survivors.