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Last Survivor of Transatlantic Slave Trade – The Life of Matilda McCrear



Matilda McCrear's story has emerged from a shadowy chapter of history thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hannah Durkin from Newcastle University. Dr. Durkin initially believed that Redoshi Smith, a former slave who passed away in 1937, was the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. However, her research has since led her to uncover another woman, Matilda McCrear, who was also brought from Africa on the same ship. McCrear lived until 1940, passing away at the age of eighty-three or eighty-four in Selma, Alabama.


As per BBC News, Matilda McCrear, alongside her sisters and their mother, Gracie, arrived in the United States at the tender age of two, aboard the final slave vessel, the Clotilda. This ship docked in Mobile, Alabama, in July 1860, a mere year before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Upon their arrival, Matilda and her mother were acquired by a plantation owner named Dr. Memorable Walker Creagh. Originally trained as both a doctor and an attorney, Dr. Creagh inherited a vast plantation, leading him to assume roles as a politician and a Gentleman Planter in South Carolina, where he oversaw a significant number of slaves. Matilda's mother was coerced into marrying another slave, while her two other daughters were forcibly separated from the family by a different plantation owner, never to be reunited.



Despite their dire circumstances, Matilda and her mother made a daring attempt to escape their enslavement at one point, only to be apprehended and returned to their owner.

The story of Matilda and her family highlights the horrors of slavery, the abuses of the US South’s sharecropping system, the injustices of segregation and the suffering of black farmers during the Great Depression. - Hannah Durkin

Dr. Durkin's objective was to trace Matilda's life journey by combing through census records and previous interviews, aiming to gain insights into the experiences of a slave family navigating the era of Emancipation. Through her diligent research, she managed to establish contact with Matilda's grandson, eighty-three-year-old Johnny Crear. Johnny himself had lived through significant historical events such as the Selma riots of 1963 and the marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Upon learning of Dr. Durkin's discoveries, Johnny expressed a mix of emotions. While he felt grateful that his grandmother's legacy had brought him into existence and was eager to learn more about her history, he couldn't help but harbour anger towards the unjust circumstances that had forced Matilda into a life of slavery.


Following the end of the war, the plight of former slaves did not see significant improvement. Many found themselves coerced into sharecropping arrangements, wherein the landowner allowed them to cultivate the land but demanded a substantial portion of the harvest in return. If the sharecroppers failed to sell their allotted share, they became indebted to the landowner for their upkeep. Lacking access to education and means to earn a livelihood, their circumstances hardly differed from their days in bondage.


After gaining freedom, Matilda displayed a fierce determination to forge her own path. She opted to discard the surname of her former owner, adopting the name McCrear. Despite being compelled into sharecropping alongside her family, she demonstrated resilience in asserting her independence. Additionally, she entered into a relationship with a Jewish white man from Germany, a union forbidden by law at the time.



Their relationship was considered shocking for the era, yet Matilda defied societal norms, spending the remainder of her life with him and raising their fourteen children together. In her seventies, fueled by a sense of justice, she marched to the county courthouse to demand compensation for the years she endured in slavery. Understandably, as a black woman in the 1930s, her plea fell on deaf ears, resulting in dismissal. However, undeterred by the setback, Matilda later granted an interview to the Selma Times-Journal. The subsequent coverage ignited public interest and may have ultimately attracted the attention of civil rights activists, leading Dr. Durkin to uncover Matilda's remarkable life story.


Lynch’s Slave Market by Thomas Easterly, c 1852.

The transatlantic slave trade, which spanned from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, is regarded by French historian Jean-Michel Deveau, cited by UNESCO, as one of the most monumental tragedies in human history in terms of its vast scale and enduring duration. This trade network operated across Africa, America, Spain, the Netherlands, England, France, and the Caribbean.


Historical estimates suggest that between twenty-five to thirty million Africans were forcibly taken and sold into slavery, with countless others perishing during the harrowing voyages aboard cramped cargo ships, where they were shackled shoulder to shoulder for weeks on end. The capture of slaves in Africa was often carried out by fellow Africans, who exchanged their human captives for European commodities such as rum, weapons, ammunition, textiles, jewels, and other luxury goods.

 



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