Matilda McCrear was kidnapped from West Africa at age two and enslaved in Alabama. She died in Selma in January 1940 at age 83—the last survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Ms. McCrear was among an estimated 10.7 million black men, women, and children who were transported from West Africa on ships and sold into slavery in the Americas. Nearly two million more died during the brutal voyage.
Dr. Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University told BBC News that Matilda McCrear, with her mother Grace and sister Sallie, arrived in Alabama in 1860—more than 50 years after Congress outlawed the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1808.
Although Dr. Durkin does not name the ship that brought Ms. McCrear to Alabama, it’s likely that she was one of 110 people from the Kingdom of Dahomey who were purchased by a wealthy plantation owner and brought to Alabama on the Clotilda in 1860. Those who survived the grueling four-month journey were offloaded in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of downtown Mobile, where many returned after the Civil War and founded Africatown in 1866.
Matilda McCrear’s father and two brothers were left behind in Africa, causing what Dr. Durkin described as a dreadful sense of separation, loss, and disorientation for her family. She and her mother and sister were bought by a wealthy plantation owner called Memorable Creagh. They tried to escape the plantation soon after they arrived but were recaptured, BBC News reports.
After the formal abolition of slavery in 1865, the family worked as sharecroppers, where they remained bound to the land and trapped in poverty.
“But Matilda’s story is particularly remarkable because she resisted what was expected of a black woman in the U.S. South in the years after emancipation,” Dr. Durkin told BBC News. “She didn’t get married. Instead, she had a decades-long common-law marriage with a white German-born man, with whom she had 14 children.”
It was an “astonishing” relationship during that time, Dr. Durkin said, because it crossed racial, class, and religious (her partner was likely Jewish) lines.
Matilda—who changed her surname from that of the man who bought her, Creagh, to McCrear—was remarkably strong willed, said Dr. Durkin, whose research is published in the journal Slavery and Abolition. “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.”
When she was in her 70s, Ms. McCrear traveled 15 miles to the county courthouse and filed a claim for compensation for her enslavement. Her reparations claim was dismissed, Dr. Durkin said, but it led to interviews by local press that provided more details about Ms. McCrear’s life.
Her 83-year-old grandson, Johnny Crear, told BBC News his family knew she had been born in Africa, but he was not aware of other details about her life. “This fills in a lot of the holes that we have about her,” he said of Dr. Durkin’s research.
“I was born in the same house where she died,” Mr. Crear told BBC News. Growing up in segregated Alabama, he witnessed violent resistance to civil rights protestors in Selma and was taught to focus on education as the “key to changing the world.”
“From the day the first African was brought to this continent as a slave, we’ve had to fight for freedom,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that she was so rebellious.”