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Redoshi

Redoshi, also known as Sally Smith, was the second to last living, African-born survivor of North American slavery, and the only female survivor of the transatlantic slave trade known to have been recorded on film. Born on the coast of West Africa in what is present day Benin, Redoshi was one of about 110 West African children and adults who were human cargo of the schooner Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States. In July of 1860, the Clotilda docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, even though federal law had banned the importation of slaves to the United States since 1808. Redoshi  outlived all other known Clotilda survivors with the exception of Matilda McCrear, who died in January 1940. Another Clotilda survivor, Kossola/Cudjo Lewis, died in 1935. Very little is known about Redoshi’s early life, although a newspaper article suggested that she was the daughter-in-law of a chief and that her father upheld the law in their community (Montgomery Advertiser, 31 January 1932). Descriptions of Redoshi’s kidnapping by Dahomean slave traders indicate that, similar to many of her fellow Clotilda survivors, she was a member of a Yoruba community that was raided on or around February 16, 1860.

King Glele of Dahomey led the raid on Redoshi’s town. Glele’s father, King Ghezo, had signed a treaty  with Great Britain in 1852 that formally abolished the export of slaves overseas. However, a decline in  the price of palm oil and resurgence of the Cuban slave trade meant that an overt trade in slaves soon  resumed within the West African kingdom. When Ghezo died in 1858, Glele expanded his father’s slave  raiding campaigns. Redoshi claimed that the Dahomean warriors who kidnapped her wet her town’s gunpowder to ensure that the community could not defend itself before launching a surprise night  attack. The survivors of the raid were then marched to the slave port of Ouidah. Redoshi suggested  that this journey took four days. The captives were then locked for three weeks in a slave pen, or barracoon, alongside other raid survivors and kidnap victims before being selected for sale to the U.S.  for $100 each. 

The voyage from West Africa to Mobile lasted for around forty-five days. Redoshi stated that at least two people died from sickness on board the ship and thrown out to sea, consequently. Upon arrival in Mobile the Clotilda survivors were smuggled upriver in an effort to conceal their illegal purchase and journey from U.S. authorities. Although the schooner was burned and sunk, remains of the Clotilda were finally identified at the bottom of the Mobile River in May 2019.

Most of the Clotilda survivors stayed in Mobile because they were enslaved to the Meaher family. The groups of men and women  managed to reunite after the Civil War. They purchased land from their former owners and created  their own community, known as African Town, the first U.S. town to be run continuously by black people and the only one founded by Africans. However, Redoshi, her husband, Yawith, and at least two other Africans were sent to Bank of Selma founder Washington Smith’s plantation in Bogue Chitto, Dallas County. According to Amelia Boynton Robinson, a community leader and voting rights activist who interviewed Redoshi in the 1930s, Redoshi was a twelve-year-old girl when she was sold and married to Yawith, a much older man from a different ethnic group. 

When Redoshi arrived at the Smith plantation, they renamed her Sally or Sallie and her husband, Yawith, became known as William or Billy Smith. The couple was enslaved to Washington Smith for the next five years and worked in both his house and cotton fields. After the Civil War formally granted them their freedom, Redoshi and Yawith continued to labor as sharecroppers on the Smith plantation. Redoshi and Yawith found that the amount of cotton that they produced was miscounted when they tried to sell it. This was a common practice by plantation owners and merchants in  the Black Belt that was designed to keep black farmers in perpetual debt to white landlords. In  response, Yawith developed a system for recording independently the amount of cotton that he  produced. Together, Redoshi and Yawith had a daughter to whom they gave a West African name, which was recorded variously on census and marriage data as Leasy, Luth A., Lethe, Lethia, Letia, and Lethy. Boynton Robinson also recalled that Redoshi had several great-grandchildren and that some became public school teachers and ministers.

Redoshi and other Clotilda captives were among the few African-born slaves who lived through the  Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. More notably for a survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, Redoshi witnessed the activist beginnings of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement through her associations with Amelia Boynton Robinson and Bogue Chitto. Redoshi was buried on the plantation where she had been enslaved. Records evidence that Redoshi remained committed to her West African spiritual beliefs and language throughout her life. 

In the last year of her life, Redoshi appeared in the U.S. Department of Agriculture film The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living (1938). This recording of Redoshi is the only known footage of a female African born transatlantic slave trade survivor. Although she is shown talking on film, tragically her voice is silenced in the brief clip, over which a white narrator intones.

Read the full, original biography by Hannah Durkin in the African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Slave Voyages.
https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/36990/variables
The Clotilda was the last of 29 ships that attempted to disembark enslaved African people illegally at United States ports in the years following the federal Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807. Eighteen of those ships were interdicted by the federal authorities. Eleven, including the Clotilda, successfully evaded capture.

National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"Clotilda: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community of Africatown,:
https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/africatown-alabama-usa

National Geographic.
"Last American slave ship is discovered in Alabama"
https://on.natgeo.com/2HModG5

"What the Discovery of the Last American Slave Ship Means to Descendants”
https://youtu.be/pGeoFbTr3k0

Interviews with Dr. Hannah Durkin, author of Redoshi for the African American National Biography
https://www.c-span.org/video/?462245-1/hannah-durkin-the-negro-farmer
This link includes the full U.S. Department of Agriculture film The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living (1938). The 20 second clip of Redoshi/Sally Smith appears on the video at 11.47 minutes. It incorrectly states that she was 110 years old at her death. She was most likely 88 years old. 
https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/04/08/trans-atlantic-slave-trade-last-survivor 

Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation
The descendants of the Clotilda in Africatown continue to work to memorialize the memory of their captive ancestors in the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation. http://africatownhpf.s442.sureserver.com/

Bibliography

Diouf, Sylviane. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship “Clotilda” and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Durkin, Hannah. “Finding Last Middle Passage Survivor Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith on the Page and  Screen.” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 40, no. 4 (2019): 631–658. 

Durkin, Hannah. “Uncovering The Hidden Lives of Last Clotilda Survivor: Matilda McCrear and Her Family,” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 41, no. 3 (2020): 431-457.

Fitts, Alston III. Selma: A Bicentennial History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.

Robinson, Amelia Boynton (as Amelia Platts Boynton). Bridge Across Jordan: The Struggle for  Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama. New York: Carlton Press, 1979. 

Roche, Emma Langdon. Historic Sketches of the South. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1914.

Adapted by

Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Redoshi (Sally Smith), 1936

Key Events

c. 1848

Redoshi is born in Dahomey (present day Benin).

February 16, 1860

Redoshi is kidnapped when her Yoruba community is raided by Dahomean slave traders.

July 1860

After a 45 day long Middle Passage, the schooner Clotilda docked in Mobile, Alabama, disembarking around 110 captives, including Redoshi and her future husband Yawith.

1860-1865

Most of the Clotilda captives remain in the Mobile region, enslaved by the Meaher family. They later form the Africatown community. Redoshi, Yawith, and at least two other Africans are enslaved 150 miles north in Bogue Chitto, Dallas County, in central Alabama. They are renamed Sally and William Smith by their owners.

1865-1936

In freedom, Redoshi and Yawith continue to labor in the cotton fields of Dallas County, as sharecroppers. They have at least one daughter and several grandchildren.

1930s

Redoshi/Sally Smith is befriended by Amelia Boynton Robinson, a civil rights activist who leads African American voting rights efforts in Dallas County from the 1930s to the climactic protests at Selma in the mid 1960s.

1931

Along with Martha McCrear, another Clotilda survivor from Bogue Chitto, Redoshi makes a 300 mile round trip to meet Kossola in Africatown. They learn that Kossola, who remembered them from the ship, had received charitable assistance as the last (male) survivor of the Clotilda. McCrear subsequently appealed to the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma for similar reparations for herself and Redoshi, but the judge dismissed the case.

1938

Two years following her death in December 1936, a brief film clip of Redoshi is included in a film produced by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era Department of Agriculture, The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living.

January 1940

Matilda McCrear dies, aged 82. She is the last known survivor of the Clotilda and the last African born former captive in the United States.

March 2019

Scholar Dr. Hannah Durkin of the University of Newcastle, England, publishes the first full biographical account of Redoshi, drawing on genealogical records and notes about Redoshi/Sally Smith recorded by the anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s.

May 2019

The remains of the Clotilda are identified at the bottom of the Mobile River.

2020

Dr. Durkin publishes the first account of another Clotilda survivor, Matilda McCrear, also from Bogue Chitto, who lived until January 1940 and is now recognized as the last African born captive in the United States.