The last slave ship survivor and her descendants identified

At age two, she was among the youngest captives on the Clotilda. Now her living grandchildren are learning of her life and legacy.

Photograph Courtesy of John Crear
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An undated portrait of Matilda McCrear, the slave ship Clotilda's last survivor, shows her in her later years. She died in 1940 at age 82.

Photograph Courtesy of John Crear

The last slave ship survivor and her descendants identified

At age two, she was among the youngest captives on the Clotilda. Now her living grandchildren are learning of her life and legacy.

She was just two years old when she arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in July 1860, a captive aboard the infamous Clotilda, the last known slave ship to bring Africans to America. She died in 1940 at the age 82, making her the last known survivor of the last known slave ship. Her name was Matilda McCrear.

Only a year ago, headlines announced that another Clotilda captive—Redoshi, aka Sally Smith—was discovered to be the longest-lived survivor. Before her, the titleholder was Cudjo Lewis. Now, after months of research, I’ve determined that McCrear outlasted them both.

McCrear’s granddaughter, Eva Berry, now 92, remembers her as a dark-skinned woman with long hair. “She talked to me about her mama and her sisters on the ship,” she recalls, “how they arrived in Mobile and then had to leave when they were bought.”

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The portrait of McCrear in this family photo album is labeled "Great Grandmother Tilly Crear." After gaining her freedom, Matilda changed her surname from Creagh—the spelling of her former enslaver—to Craigher, and later to McCrear.

Her grandson, Johnny Crear, 83, told me that his forebears described her as a “rambunctious lady” and talked about the “marks” on her face.

Those facial scars offer clear evidence of McCrear’s origin, says Olabiyi Babalola Yai, an expert in African cultures. They also reveal her given name.

“She was a Yoruba, as her ilà—or ethnic marks of the àbàjà type—show,” Yai says. And the marks “mean that her oriki, or name, was Àbáké—'born to be loved by all.’” That was, poignantly, her parents’ wish for a baby who would soon be thrown into inconceivable misery.

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A mural of the Clotilda adorns a concrete embankment in Africatown, the community near Mobile founded by some of the ship's survivors. McCrear was part of a smaller group that had been "sold up the river" and settled in the Black Belt of Alabama.

Painful passage

Àbáké’s journey to bondage in America began when the army of Dahomey raided her town and marched their prisoners to the slave port of Ouidah, in present-day Benin. There, William Foster, the Clotilda’s captain, set sail for Alabama with 110 men, women, and children locked in the ship’s hold.

Among the people on board was a young mother and her four daughters, a man who would become their stepfather, and a nephew. Àbáké, later given the name Matilda, was the youngest of the girls. She was too young to remember the hellish, six-week crossing. But her mother, who was renamed Gracie, later told her of the harrowing passage. Over the years, McCrear would recount what she was told: how the terrified children clung to their mother, whimpering for hours in the dark hold. Gracie’s nephew died during the voyage, as did a neighbor’s son.

When the 108 survivors of the crossing arrived in Mobile, most were put to work on local plantations. Five years later, after the Civil War ended their bondage, many of the freed Africans banded together and built their own close-knit community, which came to be known as Africatown. Some of their descendants still live there today. (I detailed their story in my book Dreams of Africa in Alabama, and in the recent National Geographic cover story “Last Journey into Slavery.”)

Less has been known, until now, of the fate of some 25 Clotilda captives who were “sold upriver” to plantations in the Black Belt of Alabama.

Gracie and her two youngest daughters—toddler Matilda and 10-year-old Sallie—were sold to Memorable Walker Creagh, a planter, physician, and state representative. The two older daughters went to another buyer, and their family never heard from them again. Once on the plantation, Gracie moved in with a man named Guy, a fellow Clotilda survivor.

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Matilda's grandson Johnny Crear was active in the struggle for civil rights in Selma. "You can read about slavery and be detached from it," he says. "But when it's your family that is involved, it becomes up close and very real."

Matilda was a born resister, and one of her earliest memories was of running away from her captors. She and Sallie hid in a swamp for several hours, only to be discovered by the overseer’s baying dogs.

In 1865, the fall of the Confederacy brought liberation, and the family adopted the name Craigher. At the time Athens in Dallas County was home to 368 white landowners and merchants and more than 3,000 landless blacks. Necessities were bought at the store run by James McDonald, the richest merchant-farmer in the town of Athens. Gracie and Guy spoke little English and communicated mostly by sign language, so bilingual Matilda translated their supply list: typically, items such as meat, meal, calico, tobacco, and snuff.

A child becomes a mother

When she was only 14, Matilda gave birth to a daughter, Eliza. The father, Bob Mose, was a white man. Slavery may have been abolished, but black females were often subject to white men’s predatory behavior and the circumstances of Matilda becoming a teen mother are not known. Matilda bore two more mixed-race daughters during that period.

In December 1879 Gracie died of tuberculosis. According to her death record she was 60, and given the hardships she had endured, she may well have appeared that old. But in fact she was only in her late forties.

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Johnny Crear's father Joe (left), his brother Edward (middle), and his mother Julia pose for a portrait in 1954.

Matilda, now on her own, moved her family to Martin Station, Alabama, after a devastating tornado left Athens a ghost town. She met Jacob Schuler, a German bookbinder who had emigrated to America in 1865 and become everything black people had good reason to loathe and fear: a constable, deputy sheriff, and overseer.

Yet over the next 17 years Matilda and Schuler would have seven children together. According to granddaughter Eva Berry, “Granddad Schuler” had a good rapport with his and Matilda’s children, and there is little doubt his relationship with Matilda was known in town. When asked about marriage many years later, Matilda brushed aside the question with a laugh.

Their children—Frederick, Matilda, Sylvester, Emma, Johnnie, Joe, and Thomas—along with their three half-sisters (four of Matilda’s children had died in infancy), became close-knit siblings. They later gave their own children the names of their brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. Their last name, however, had endless variations: Craigher, Crear, Creah, Creagh, Creagher, McCreer, and McCrear. (This last variant has come down to us as Matilda’s preferred surname.)

Growing up, moving on

By the turn of the 20th century McCrear’s situation had dramatically improved and she was able to rent a farm. She may have succeeded on the strength of her own industry, or in part because Frederick, Matilda, and Sylvester were by then old enough to work alongside her. It’s even possible that Schuler contributed to the family’s upkeep.

During the following decade, as the boll weevil made its destructive way through the cotton fields, some of McCrear’s children migrated to cities in search of better opportunities. Emma moved to Selma, Eliza to Mobile. John settled near Birmingham, where he worked for the railroad. In 1917, when asked his race for the military draft, he answered “African.”

McCrear stayed put in Martin, living with her youngest child, Thomas. Three doors down was her son Joe. Her daughter Sallie, now a widowed mother of four, also settled nearby. Sylvester lived five houses away from his 71-year-old father, Jacob Schuler. By 1920 more than 20 members of the extended family resided in Martin.

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No stone marks her grave, but it's believed that Matilda was laid to rest here, in the Martin Station Cemetery near Safford, Alabama.

In 1931 McCrear’s grandsons informed her that World War I veterans had received a long overdue bonus for their military service. The news spurred McCrear, then 73 years old, to rise up and walk 17 miles to Selma to argue that the government owed her a debt too.

An article in the Selma newspaper later reported that “Tildy McCrear” thought that her having been “snatched from her home in Africa, while yet an infant, called for a little reimbursement.” As proof of her origin she presented three scars on her left cheek.

When told no compensation was coming, she kept her dignity, telling the probate judge she supposed she didn’t need anything more than what she got. She had made a bold stand, and her passion for justice would burn even brighter in her descendants.

According to the newspaper, McCrear also wanted to dispel the belief that Cudjo Lewis, one of the original founders of Africatown, was the only remaining Clotilda survivor—that she and Sallie Smith (Redoshi) were, in fact, still very much alive.

McCrear confided, however, that visiting Lewis had been one of the great events of her life. With her mother, stepfather, and sister dead, he represented one of the last links to her past, and someone with whom she could share memories. She also revealed that she had visited, presumably with Lewis, the place in Clarke County where they had disembarked from the Clotilda 71 years before.

In 1937 McCrear moved to Selma to live with her granddaughter, Emma. On January 1, 1940, Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker, a black physician, was summoned to her side after she suffered a stroke. Ever the survivor, she held on until January 13. She was buried in Martin three days later.

A living legacy

McCrear’s grandson, Johnny Crear, is clearly an inheritor of her spirit and spunk. He left Selma to attend Xavier University in New Orleans, intending never to return to his hometown. But in the spirit of his alma mater—the only black Catholic university in the country—he finally decided to “give back” to his community and went home.

During the Civil Rights movement he was arrested on charges of assault and battery and thrown in jail. His offense: Stopping a white man who was trying to stuff a live snake down his throat.

On March 7, 1965,—later dubbed Bloody Sunday for the racial violence that rocked Selma—Johnny was a 28-year-old administrative assistant at the Catholic Good Samaritan Hospital, where he worked feverishly to admit the many injured marchers who flocked in.

Crear went on to become a hospital administrator who provided care to those too poor to pay, a Rotary Club Citizen of the Year, and a community leader who has been on a dozen boards and helped integrate the Catholic community. When I shared my research about his grandmother’s life, he felt conflicted—feeling pride in her courage and resilience, but also resentment for what she was made to suffer.

“My initial thought,” he said, “was that this information helped me know how she was kidnapped, sold, brought to this country, and sold into slavery. This same information also made me very angry. You can read about slavery and be detached from it, but when it's your family that’s involved, it becomes up close and very real.”

One of Johnny Crear’s nine grandchildren, 27-year-old Paul Calhoun III, grew up in Atlanta. He went to college and graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business—and then, like his grandfather, returned to his hometown in the South. His reaction to his ancestor’s story? “The pride I have in my family was bolstered by learning more about my great-great grandmother and her perseverance through displacement, marginalization, trauma, and adversity,” he says. “This pride creates some personal pressure to persevere personally and publicly.”

Asked about the larger historical perspective, Calhoun said this: “I think Matilda’s story sheds a lot of light on the attempts to suppress the voices of ex-slaves and their descendants. I hope it can better contextualize the history of the illegal slave trade and serve as another precautionary tale of what it looks like when people are being marginalized by a government.”

For the past 160 years, as Clotilda lay at the bottom of the Mobile River, the Crears, in all their name’s variations, tenaciously pitted themselves against long odds. Their story is one of resilient African mothers nurturing children from the slave ship to the punishing cotton fields; of strong-willed children pulling up roots in search of better lives; of striving grandchildren and their children after them. It is a profoundly African-American story of tragedy and loss; of migrations, forced and voluntary; of strong family ties, determination, and achievement.