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Found on film: the last survivor of the final slave ship from Africa to the US

Cudjo Lewis became a literary sensation last year when he was declared ‘the last slave’. But now a British academic says that epithet belongs to Redoshi, a woman who was the subject of an extraordinary cover-up and decades of white denial

Adam Lusher
Friday 05 April 2019 18:45
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Discovered on film: The last survivor from the final slave ship to take captive human cargo from Africa to the US

Her name was Redoshi. They took her from Africa, and probably forced her to become a child bride so she would fetch a higher price in the US as one half of a “breeding couple”.

The overseers beat her if she failed to understand English. She passed on the language of her African homeland to her children and grandchildren anyway.

Even as an old woman, she kept the memory of home alive, decorating her Alabama yard as they did in west Africa, keeping the old spiritual beliefs beneath her Christianity.

By any measure, Redoshi, renamed Sally Smith, was an extraordinary woman. But now a British academic has revealed she was also the last survivor from the final slave ship to take captive human cargo from Africa to the US.

It had been thought that dubious distinction belonged to a man: Kossula, who died in Alabama in 1935 as Cudjo Lewis.

Indeed, last year Lewis became something of a literary sensation when his life story was finally published, after a rejected manuscript by the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston became the book Barracoon, subtitled: The Story of the Last Slave.

Now, however, Dr Hannah Durkin, a lecturer in literature and film at Newcastle University, has revealed compelling evidence to suggest that Lewis was not quite the last slave. She thinks Redoshi arrived in the US on the same ship as Lewis, and outlived him by two years, dying in 1937.

Moreover, in an article published in the journal Slavery and Abolition Durkin describes how Redoshi’s existence was effectively covered up by Hurston – the very woman who wrote so movingly about Lewis.

In her Barracoon manuscript, Hurston had introduced Lewis by saying: “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left ... The only man on Earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home, the Lenten tones of slavery.”

But as she wrote this, Hurston knew there was probably also one woman left: Redoshi. Because on her travels through the American south, she had met her.

As Durkin explains in her article Finding last Middle Passage survivor Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith on the page and screen, in July 1928, a few months after interviewing Lewis, Hurston wrote to poet Langston Hughes: “Oh! Almost forgot. Found another one of the original Africans about 200 miles upstate on the Tombigbee river. She is most delightful, a better talker than Cudjo ... But no one will ever know about her but us.”

Hurston kept her secret. She published no further details of a woman who could potentially have provided a vanishingly rare account of the notorious Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas as experienced by a female slave. She never even divulged the name of this “most delightful” good talker. The trail, historians assumed, had gone cold.

But then in 2016 Durkin read Every Tongue Got To Confess, an unfinished collection of the writer’s interviews that was only published in 2001, 51 years after Hurston’s death. There is no interview with Redoshi in that tome.

But as she went through the appendix, which reproduces the list of interviewees compiled by Hurston before she abandoned her project, Durkin spotted a reference to “Mrs Sally Smith: Born in Tarkwa, Gold Coast. Brought to America in 1859.”

The penny dropped. “Brought to America in 1859” was a slightly bungled reference to the 1860 voyage of the slave smuggling ship Clotilda, which brought 116 captives including Lewis to the US 52 years after America banned the importation (but not the ownership) of slaves.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston

Which meant “Mrs Sally Smith” was the woman mentioned in Hurston’s 1928 letter.

“Suddenly,” Durkin tells The Independent, “here was this woman’s name. It was incredible, especially as historians had seemed so sure her name had been lost.”

And when Durkin embarked on the trail of Sally Smith, she discovered something even more incredible: Redoshi had been filmed.

In the summer of 2017, while reading a copy of the book Documenting Racism by J Emmett Winn, Durkin noticed a reference to ex-slave “Sally Smith” having appeared in the obscure 1938 US public information film The Negro Farmer.

She leapt off her sofa and went to her computer. And there on the 21st century online platform that is YouTube was the face of the last survivor of the final ship to land slaves in the US.

Film also exists of Lewis. But this, Durkin realised, was the only film footage so far uncovered of a woman who had endured slavery in the US. Redoshi’s 18-second film appearance was also the first known footage of a female Middle Passage survivor.

“It was absolutely incredible to be able to give a face to the name,” says Durkin, “To be able to see what she looked like and approach her as a person in a way you can’t when reading a text. When you watch her on that film, she really does become a living person.”

The commentary confirmed that “Aunt Sally Smith” had died in 1937, two years after Cudjo.​ Durkin, however, is almost certain that nearly everything else the white narrator said about Sally Smith was wrong.

He referred to her as “long past her 110th year when she died in 1937”. Durkin, however, believes Redoshi died at the considerably more common age of about 89.

The inaccuracy, she suggests, stems from a refusal by some 1920s and 1930s white Americans to accept the realities of slavery.

“Slavery was seen by mainstream historians as this civilising endeavour,” says Durkin. “One justification was that it was saving the souls of Africans by taking them to the US and converting them to Christianity.”

This preference for a “white saviour” narrative, Durkin believes, may explain why the only known newspaper interview with Redoshi seems to have glossed over much of what she endured.

When SL Flock interviewed Redoshi for the Montgomery Advertiser in 1932, he did so in consultation with the daughter of her former owner Washington Smith, the founder of the Bank of Selma.

As well as quoting Redoshi as saying “white folks in this country good”, Smith was a “good man”, and “Mistress Smith, we love her and no want to leave”, Flock said she had been a married woman of 25 when captured in Africa.

This would have made her – as the public information film later stated – more than 100 years old when she died in 1937.

Durkin, however, believes Redoshi was captured as a child of 12.

She bases her conclusion on the only other surviving written record of Redoshi, contained in five pages of the memoir Bridge Across Jordan by Selma civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Having spent an afternoon in the early 1930s chatting to the ex-slave, Boynton Robinson quoted Redoshi as saying her captors forced her to become a child bride: “I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe.

“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.”

Amelia Boynton Robinson wrote about Redoshi in her memoir ‘Bridge Across Jordan’

Durkin thinks that, writing more than 40 years after her conversation with Redoshi, Boynton Robinson failed to remember every detail of the conversation accurately.

But given the alternative is to suggest Redoshi died at an age that was wholly exceptional for a black woman in 1930s America, Durkin is inclined to believe she was captured and forcibly married while still a child.

“I can only imagine the trauma she endured,” says Durkin. “This is not about civilising people. It is about exploiting them for profit, breeding them like animals. This is child abuse.”

She is also indignant about how Redoshi was used in the public information film to support a narrative of “abject” black Americans in need of “rescue” by whites.

While Redoshi can be seen speaking in the film, her voice is not heard. Instead the white narrator asserts that she “lived to see the hard lot endured by her generation and that of her children in some measure bettered by this [Department of Agriculture] campaign to help negroes help themselves”.

Referring to the extensive economic control plantation owners were able to exert over supposedly free black tenant farmers, Durkin says: “It is incredibly deceitful that they present this white saviour narrative of coming along and helping these African Americans or Africans who can’t look after themselves. The reality was that they were being horribly exploited.”

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Although, according to Boynton Robinson’s account, Redoshi’s late husband Yawith – with whom she eventually established a loving relationship – had showed considerable ingenuity in resisting exploitation and ensuring he was at least paid properly for the cotton he produced.

Redoshi, meanwhile, took pride in improving the appearance of the “dark and tiny one-room and kitchen hut” where she was kept as a slave and lived as a free woman.

Boynton Robinson noted how her yard was “immaculate”, with “flowers painted in circles surrounded by half-buried bottles in geometrical formation”.

The use of the bottles, Durkin and others have noted, seemed to recall how some west African homes were decorated in a way that was thought to deter evil spirits.

Boynton Robinson also recalled Redoshi predicting heavy rain, citing the spirits and deities of her west African homeland.

“It is so, so sad,” Dr Durkin. “From those little details you see her doing what she can to hold on to her beliefs, how she was denied the life she should have had.

“She is just one voice, but she gives us a sense of what other women kidnapped in west Africa endured, how they tried to live in slavery and post-slavery America.”

It is, she acknowledges, “frustrating” that Hurston concealed the existence of Redoshi, and seems never to have written down what the ex-slave told her.

A full-length interview with a female Middle Passage survivor, Durkin explains, would have become a document of the foremost historical importance: “There are almost no first-hand accounts from female survivors of the transatlantic slave trade. They are incredibly rare, and very sparse indeed.”

Zora Neale Hurston

But Durkin finds it impossible to bear a grudge against Hurston. Her freedom too was being constrained.

Hurston interviewed Lewis and met Redoshi after being sent to Alabama by Charlotte Osgood Mason, her white, wealthy and controlling patron.

As described by Rebecca Panovka in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “in exchange for a monthly stipend, she was to seek out the ‘music, folklore, poetry, voodoo, conjure, manifestations of art, and kindred matters among American Negroes.

“Hurston was legally obligated to ‘lay before’ Mason whatever material she collected. She was forbidden from sharing her material, or even from disclosing its subject matter without prior approval from Mason.”

These potentially stifling constraints also seemed to be pushing Hurston in directions she did not want to go.

While she may have been happy to secretly insert Redoshi’s voice into some of her literary fiction, Durkin thinks Hurston would have been far less keen on writing another straight slavery narrative. Hurston and her fellow Harlem Renaissance writers, explains Durkin, were determined to be respected as intellectuals, not belittled as the descendants of slaves – something that still attracted stigma in the 1920s.

In 1928, the same year she interviewed Lewis and met Redoshi, Hurston expressed her feelings in an essay entitled How It Feels to be Coloured Me.

“I am not tragically coloured,” she insisted. “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. [But] slavery is 60 years in the past ... I am off to a flying start and I must not halt to look behind and weep.”

And yet, says Durkin, Hurston was seemingly being pushed into writing about the ex-slave Lewis by Mason: “She was far less interested in slavery than her patron.

“The more I read about Hurston, the more I feel sorry for her. Her career was so constrained by others because she was a black woman.”

Which means, it seems, Durkin can see much to admire in both women: the writer and the African-born slave.

“She was such an incredible woman,” says Durkin of Redoshi. “The psychological harm she must have endured is unfathomable, and yet somehow she survived and, as much as she could, tried to thrive and ensure her descendants had much better lives than she did.”

Before she died, according to the account left by Boynton Robinson, Redoshi had seen some of her many great-grandchildren become teachers and pastors.

Durkin wonders what has become of modern generations of the former slave’s descendants. Tracing them, she says, is bedevilled by US census-takers’ inability to render a correct and consistent spelling for Redoshi’s only daughter, to whom she had given an African name recorded as “Leasy”, “Lethe”, “Letia” and even “Luth A”.

“They must be out there somewhere,” says Durkin, “But at the moment I doubt anyone would know for sure that they are descended from the last survivor of the Clotilda.”

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