The last known survivor of America’s last official slave ship died in 1940; her story is proof that despite racism and slavery may have been legally abolished, it still exists to date.
Àbáké (meaning “born to be loved by all”) was only two years old when she arrived in Alabama in 1860. Her facial tribal marks—which are preserved in photographs—proves she came from the Yoruba people of West Africa.
Her family was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and taken to the slave port of Ouidah in the present-day Republic of Benin.
There, Captain William Foster and his crew illegally purchased them and over 100 others to traffic into the United States on the Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship. Even though the slave trade had been abolished in the United States in 1807, slave importation still occurred in America until 1860 and beyond.
Upon reaching the United States, a prominent Alabama slaveowner named Walker Creagh bought Àbáké, her mother, and her 10-year-old sister to work on his plantation. He changed her name from “Àbáké” to “Matilda”, and renamed her mother and sister “Gracie” and “Sallie” respectively. Another slaveowner bought her two older sisters, and “Àbáké” (now Matilda) never saw them again.
By the time “Àbáké” died in 1940, she had lived through the Civil War, Jim Crow laws era, World War I, the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Yet, many African slaves like her; she was denied by the system and betrayed by history.
Sylviane A. Diouf, author of the book ‘Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda’ carried research on “Àbáké” in 2007.
According to Diouf’s report for national Geographic, “Àbáké” granddaughter Eva Berry “was 12 when Matilda died”. That means she was old enough to remember hearing her grandmother talk about her captivity on a slave ship, life in slavery, and emancipation. Àbáké was about seven when slavery ended, many slaves were freed after the Civil War of 1865.
Reports indicate that Àbáké (now known as Matilda McCrear) 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 died in 1879, Matilda, now a mother of three in her early 20s, moved to Martin Station, Alabama with her children. While at Martin Station, she met and began a relationship with Jacob Schuler, a white German immigrant. Over 17 years, they had seven children together.
In 1931, Àbáké was informed by her grandsons that veterans of World War 1 were being paid their overdue bonuses. She walked 17 miles to Selma to request compensation and showed the marks on her cheeks as proof that she was kidnapped and brought to America as a toddler.
But Àbáké was denied by the system. Diouf recorded that 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.
When asked about reparations for the Clotilda survivors, Timothy Meaher 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.”
Critics believe that Àbáké and other slaves like her have not only been denied by the system but also betrayed by history. Like the famous Black American novelist and activist – James Baldwin puts it; ‘people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’.
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