A historical account spanning more than 80 years pieces together the challenging life of Sally “Redoshi” Smith, the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, who died in 1937.
Following her kidnapping in West Africa to her enslavement in Confederate Alabama to her eventual freedom, Redoshi’s historical account was put together by Hannah Durkin, a researcher and professor at Newcastle University in the UK. Durkin first tuned into Smith’s story after she realized her name was mentioned across several references linked to the Civil Rights Movement and Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis), a woman who was previously believed to be the last survivor but died two years prior to Redoshi. Together, the woman’s story adds to our understanding of transatlantic slavery as a lived experience contributing to a lifetime of oppression and psychological trauma that lasted well into the 20th century.
“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,” she said in a press release. “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.”
The authors note that surviving documents are fragmentary and contradictory, often raising more questions than they answer. However, so long as historians are mindful of these limitations, the story can add to a greater depth of knowledge about this time. Redoshi appears in several archival sources, including a film, a newspaper article, and a memoir written by civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson.
Redoshi was one of 116 West African children and young people taken to the US on the last slave ship to arrive in the country, the Clotilda, by an owner of an Alabama plantation named Washington Smith. In a previous interview, she describes a night raid on her town in which she called her kidnappers “bad people”, remembering that the rival tribe who kidnapped her had wet her community’s guns before attacking in order to ensure they were powerless. Records indicate that her parents and husband were also kidnapped from the village of Tarkwa.
Once sold into slavery, captives were locked in “sixes and eights… and put in hold” aboard the ship on a voyage that took between 45 and 70 days in a dehumanizing experience that resulted in potentially two deaths while at sea. It’s believed that Redoshi was renamed “Sally” or “Sallie Smith” sometime after her arrival to the US in 1859, after which she was enslaved for almost five years working in both the house and the fields of a plantation in Selma, Alabama.
Following emancipation, Redoshi lived a poverty-stricken life. She lived with her daughter and husband (who died in the 1910s or 20s) in an unincorporated black township in the Black Belt, a major cotton-producing region of Alabama. A 1932 article shows the historical perspective by which those from Africa were perceived as, according to Durkin, describing Redoshi as a “‘dark, supple princess … imbued with the love of life in the jungles’ who apparently had a dream about being taken across the water the night before she was kidnapped” – a tale that was told “amid smiles and laughter” but that conflicts directly with other accounts from Clotilda survivors.
In a film recorded just days before her death, Redoshi sits wrapped in a quilt in a rocking chair on the porch of her cabin wrapped in a skillfully crafted quilt. She told stories of cultural and spiritual practices that she kept alive, such as how a cat's eyes can be used to determine the function of the Moon, Sun, and tide. Her life may have been one of circumstance, but it tells the story of how “a woman born in West Africa battled not only to survive but also to retain her cultural heritage in the United States,” reads the account in the journal Slavery & Abolition.