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Matilda McCrear lived until 1940 – the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade
The transatlantic slave trade might seem like something from a distant and barbaric era – but a historian has found evidence its last survivor was alive in living memory.
Hannah Durkin, at the University of Newcastle, had previously identified the last living person from Africa to have been captured and sold into slavery in the United States as a woman called Redoshi Smith, who died in 1937.
But she has now discovered another former slave, Matilda McCrear, died in Selma, Alabama, in January 1940, aged 83.
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Johnny Crear, a witness to 1960s civil rights protests, did not know about his grandmother’s life story
In the 1960s, her grandson, Johnny Crear, now 83 himself, witnessed violence against civil rights marchers in Selma, led by Dr Martin Luther King.
On discovering his grandmother had been enslaved, he tells BBC News: “I had a lot of mixed emotions.
“I thought if she hadn’t undergone what had happened, I wouldn’t be here.
“But that was followed by anger.”
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A 19th Century map shows the “Slave Coast” of West Africa
Captured in West Africa aged two, she arrived in Alabama in 1860 on board one of the last transatlantic slave ships and was bought by Memorable Creagh, a plantation owner, along with her mother, Grace, who was in her 30s, and young sister Sallie.
Her two other sisters were sold to another owner – and they never saw them again.
And her father and two brothers were left behind in Africa.
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Slave ships continued to bring captives from West Africa to the United States until about 1860
Matilda, Grace, and Sallie tried to escape the plantation soon after they arrived but they were recaptured.
The abolition of slavery, in 1865, brought emancipation but Matilda’s family still worked the land, trapped in poverty as share-croppers.
Grace seems never to have learned much English.
“But Matilda’s story is particularly remarkable because she resisted what was expected of a black woman in the US South in the years after emancipation,” Ms Durkin says.
“She didn’t get married.
“Instead, she had a decades-long common-law marriage with a white German-born man, with whom she had 14 children.”
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Martin Luther King at a civil rights protest in Selma, in 1965
It seems likely he was Jewish, Ms Durkin says, making their relationship “astonishing” for its era in its crossing of boundaries of race, class, religion and social expectation.
And Matilda changed her name from Creagh, the slave owner, to McCrear.
She was remarkably strong willed, Ms Durkin says.
“Even though she left West Africa when she was a toddler, she appears throughout her life to have worn her hair in a traditional Yoruba style, a style presumably taught to her by her mother,” says Dr Durkin, whose research is published in the journal, Slavery and Abolition.
She also carried the facial markings from a traditional rite in Africa.
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A stand-off between police and civil rights marchers in Alabama, in 1965
In her 70s, Matilda set out on another journey, travelling for 15 miles on dirt roads to a county courthouse to make a claim for compensation for her enslavement.
By then, she was one of a small number of surviving slaves from Africa who seem to have made contact with each other.
There was a settlement near Mobile, Alabama, of descendants of slaves from the same ship as Matilda, where the West African language of Yoruba was spoken.
Her claim was dismissed – but, in the Deep South of the 1930s, such a provocative idea, reparation for slavery, attracted local press attention and the interviews helped to fill in some details of Matilda’s life.
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Commemorations marked the 55th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Selma
When she died, however, with the still raw history of slavery remaining a difficult and dangerous topic, there were no obituaries – and no recognition.
“There was a lot of stigma attached to having been a slave,” Ms Durkin says.
“The shame was placed on the people who were enslaved, rather than the slavers.”
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Selma this month, during the vote for the Democratic Party presidential nomination
Her grandson says: “I was born in the same house where she died.”
And although his family knew Matilda was originally from Africa, nothing much was spoken about her life.
“This fills in a lot of the holes that we have about her,” he says of Ms Durkin’s research.
But the cruelty Matilda faced is no surprise to him.
“From the day the first African was brought to this continent as a slave, we’ve had to fight for freedom,” he says.
He grew up in an era of racial segregation – and his parents put a huge emphasis on education as the way to escape poverty and the “key to changing the world”.
But the lack of knowledge about his grandmother reflects how much of the history of slavery still lies below the surface.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she was so rebellious,” Mr Crear says.
And there were many hidden stories of slaves fighting back and resisting their captors.
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The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery was re-enacted this month
In the civil rights protests, they were singing songs with roots in the years of slavery, tapping into the same “continuous struggle and fight” and pursuing the same the goals of “real freedom and equality” as his independent-minded grandmother.
“It’s refreshing to know she had the kind of spirit that’s uplifting,” he says.
But it is still sobering to think how the glamour of 1940s Hollywood overlapped so directly with the lives of women and children brought in chains from Africa.