Like many African people forced into American slavery, Redoshi was only a child when slave traders chained her to their boat. Kidnapped at age 12 in what is now Benin, she became a prisoner on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to smuggle people into the United States. And, as one scholar in the United Kingdom has discovered, she became the last known surviving member of that ship: Redoshi lived until 1937, a full 72 years after slavery’s abolition.
Before scholar Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University identified Redoshi, the last known survivor of the Clotilda was Oluale Kossola, a man captured at age 19 in West Africa who lived until 1935 as “Cudjo Lewis.” 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.
Slave traders forced the 12-year-old Redoshi to be the “wife” of an adult enslaved man who spoke a different language. The traders then sold Redoshi and the man as a couple to Washington Smith, founder of Alabama’s Bank of Selma. Later, Redoshi described this forced child marriage to the civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson.
“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.”
For nearly five years, Redoshi worked in the house and the fields of Smith’s Bogue Chitto plantation in Dallas County. Smith also forced her to take a new name, “Sally Smith.” Redoshi conceived and gave birth to her daughter on the plantation. When emancipation came to all states on June 19, 1865—aka Juneteenth—Redoshi was only about 17 years old.
With few options, and no means to travel back home to her family in West Africa, she continued to live on the Bogue Chitto plantation with her daughter. She and other enslaved people later came to own around 6,000 acres of land on the plantation, where she spent the rest of her life.
Durkin found evidence of Redoshi’s life in an incredible variety of sources—Boynton Robinson’s memoir, Zora Neale Hurston’s unpublished writings and even a film. That film containing footage of Redoshi is the only known footage of a female survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Durkin published her research on Redoshi in the 2019 volume of Slavery & Abolition.
“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.”
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.”