This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
At 2 years old, Matilda McCrear was kidnapped in 1860 by slave traders in West Africa. Along with her parents and three siblings, Matilda was forced to make the long and dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean on the bottom of a slave ship.
Matilda and her family were transported on the Clotilda, the last ship to carry enslaved Africans to America. The boat docked in Mobile, Alabama, in July 1860, and Matilda was purchased by Memorable Walker Creagh, an Alabama slave owner.
Hannah Durkin, a researcher at Newcastle University in England, has discovered that Matilda, who died in 1940 at the age of 81 or 82, was the last African-born slave to die.
Post-slavery, Matilda became a staunch women’s and human rights advocate including pushing for women’s suffrage, historians noted.
Remarkably, Matilda’s grandson only recently learned about his family’s history based on Durkin’s research and the online journal Slavery and Abolition.
“I had no idea she’d been on the Clotilda,” Johnny Crear, Matilda’s 83-year-old grandson, said in a news release. “It came as a real surprise. Her story gives me mixed emotions because if she hadn’t been brought here, I wouldn’t be here. But it’s hard to read about what she experienced.”
Matilda’s family was split up immediately when two of her brothers were left in West Africa. She would never know what happened to them, according to Durkin. On arrival in America, Matilda was bought by Creagh along with her 10-year-old sister Sallie and her mother, Gracie.
Gracie was forcibly paired with Guy, another Clotilda survivor, while her two oldest daughters were bought by another slave owner and never seen again.
“In some ways, Matilda was more fortunate than the vast majority of Middle Passage survivors,” Durkin said. “She got to stay with her mother and one of her sisters, and because she was only two when she was taken from Africa, Matilda was still very young when emancipated.
“But make no mistake, her life was incredibly hard,” she said. “The story of Matilda and her family highlights the horrors of slavery, the abuses of the U.S. South’s sharecropping system, the injustices of segregation, and the suffering of black farmers during the Great Depression.”
Matilda’s story came to light when Durkin, a lecturer in literature and film in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, found an interview with her in the Selma Times-Journal.
“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,” Durkin noted in the news release.
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.
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.
She also changed her surname from Creagh — her former enslaver’s spelling — to McCrear.
“One of her most striking acts of resistance came when she was in her 70s, and this is what led to her being interviewed by the Selma Times-Journal,” Durkin said.
Matilda was interviewed by journalist Octavia Wynn for the newspaper because she had made the 15-mile journey from her home to Dallas County Courthouse in Selma to claim compensation as a survivor of the Clotilda.
At the time, Cudjo “Kossola” Lewis was widely considered to be the last survivor of the Clotilda and had received financial assistance as a result.
Matilda and another elderly woman named Redoshi embarked on a 300-mile round trip from their homes in rural Dallas County to Africatown, near Mobile, Alabama, in December 1931 to visit Lewis, who upon their arrival acknowledged them as fellow Clotilda survivors.
“However, when Matilda took their claim for compensation to Selma, it was dismissed, and she left empty-handed,” Durkin noted.