Oluale Kossola, a man captured at age 19 in West Africa who lived until 1935 as “Cudjo Lewis,” was the last known survivor of the Clotilda before researcher Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University identified Redoshi. Both he and Redoshi were among the more than 100 African children, teenagers, and young adults who arrived in Alabama on the illegal slave ship in 1860, one year before the Civil War.
Redoshi was only a young child when slave traders shackled her to their boat, like they did with countless other Africans who were brought to America as slaves. She was taken captive on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to smuggle people into the United States, after being kidnapped at the age of 12 in what is now Benin. She was born in 1848. She also lived until 1937, a full 72 years after slavery was abolished, making her the last known survivor of that ship, as one researcher in the UK has uncovered.
Redoshi, at age 12 was made to be the “wife” of an older slave who spoke a different language by slave dealers. The owner of Alabama’s Bank of Selma, Washington Smith, purchased Redoshi and the man from the traffickers as a couple. Redoshi later spoke with civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson and revealed this forced juvenile marriage.
“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 Boynton Robinson’s memoir, Bridge Across Jordan. “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.”
Redoshi labored in the house and the fields of Smith’s Bogue Chitto plantation in Dallas County for almost five years. Additionally, Smith made her adopt the name “Sally Smith.” On the plantation, Redoshi got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter. Redoshi was only approximately 17 years old when emancipation was enacted in all states on June 19, 1865, also known as Juneteenth.
Redoshi was enslaved for nearly five years and worked in both the house and the fields. Her husband, who was known as William or Billy, was kidnapped with her and died in the 1910s or 1920s. Following emancipation, she continued to live with her daughter on the plantation where she was enslaved.
She and her daughter remained to reside on the Bogue Chitto plantation because she had few other options and no way to return to her family in West Africa. Later, she and other slaves acquired ownership of about 6,000 acres of the plantation where she lived through the remainder of her days.
In a dizzying array of materials, including Boynton Robinson’s memoir, Zora Neale Hurston’s unpublished papers, and even a movie, Durkin discovered proof of Redoshi’s existence. The sole known footage of a female transatlantic slave trade survivor is in that movie, which features Redoshi. In the 2019 issue of Slavery & Abolition, Durkin released her analysis of Redoshi.
This article identifies for the first time the last living Middle Passage survivor, Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith (ca. 1848–1937), and traces her life story across a range of archival sources, including the only known film footage of a female transatlantic slavery survivor. These texts collectively provide an exceptionally detailed account of a female Middle Passage survivor’s transatlantic experiences and, equally significantly, evidence both on the page and the screen how a woman born in West Africa battled not only to survive, but also to retain her cultural heritage in the United States.Finding last middle passage survivor Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith on the page and screen
“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 said in a Newcastle press 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.”
“These materials add hugely to our understanding of transatlantic slavery as a lived experience,” says Dr Durkin, Lecturer in Literature and Film in Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics.
“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.
“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.”
Sylviane A. Diouf, a visiting professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, says that Redoshi’s “story is valuable in and of itself,” but cautions that we shouldn’t be overly focused on which survivor was “the last” one.
“There were lots of very young people on the Clotilda and some may have died even later than she,” says Diouf, who is also author of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America.
“The importance is not whether she was the last one, or Cudjo was the last one… To have your story written about, that is important.”
One source suggests Redoshi was aged more than 110 when she died in Alabama in 1937 – although Dr Durkin believes this to be an exaggeration.
She is mentioned in the memoir of civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson, the woman who invited Dr Martin Luther King Jr to Selma and which culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches. In her book she recalls Redoshi, describing the contrast between her peaceful life in West Africa and the suffering she endured at the hands of white men. Boynton Robinson also reveals Redoshi’s captors forced her to become a child bride while she was on the Clotilda.
“Although this is just a snapshot of a life, you do get a sense of who Redoshi was,” says Dr Durkin.
“She lived through tremendous trauma and separation, but there is also a sense of pride in these texts. Her resistance, either through her effort to own her own land in America or in smaller acts like keeping her West African beliefs alive, taking care in her appearance and her home and the joy she took in meeting a fellow African in the 1930s, help to show who she was.”