Dr. Hannah Durkin is a historian specializing in transatlantic slavery and African diasporic art and culture. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Nottingham and a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism from Leeds Trinity University. She has taught at Nottingham and Newcastle Universities and recently served as a Guest Researcher at Linnaeus University in Sweden.
Below, Hannah shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade. Listen to the audio version—read by Hannah herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The last US slave ship sailed in 1860—and the voyage started with a bet.
The United States passed a law banning the slave trade in 1808. But that didn’t stop a schooner named the Clotilda from trafficking 110 children and young people from the port of Ouidah in present-day Benin to Mobile Bay, Alabama in July 1860. The youngest of the captives was just two years old.
The Clotilda was the last documented US slave ship. Yet the schooner was quickly scuttled and burned, and no one involved in the crime was ever punished. The survivors of the voyage —around seven captives died at sea—were sold, separated, and forced to endure five years of slavery in and around Mobile and the cotton belt of central Alabama. Once freed, they saved money from their meager wages, and some gathered annually in Montgomery in a determined effort to go home. But none of them ever succeeded.
The Clotilda voyage was long rumored to have been sparked by a bet. While researching this book, I found evidence that the bet actually happened. Two of the men who witnessed the wager were named in a handwritten note left by one of the crime’s conspirators, which can be found among other archival material relating to the Clotilda at Mobile Public Library. I was able to conclusively identify one of those men, a northern businessman named Frederick Ayer. I found traces of his movements through the Deep South in the mid-1850s, which told me exactly when the Clotilda bet took place.
2. The Clotilda voyage was also part of a larger effort to reopen the US slave trade on the eve of the Civil War.
One of Frederick Ayer’s two clients in Alabama was a man named Benjamin Rush Jones, who enslaved at least a dozen Clotilda survivors on his estate near Montgomery. Together with a friend named Alexander Frederick Given, also a Clotilda enslaver, Jones was a close associate of leading secessionist William Lowndes Yancey. All three men were leaders of Montgomery’s First Presbyterian Church, which they established just six months before the Clotilda bet was placed. Yancey was the so-called “Prince of the Fire-Eaters,” a group of pro-slavery extremists who urged the South’s secession from the Union as early as 1850. Yancey and other Fire-Eaters campaigned noisily for the US slave trade to resume throughout much of the 1850s.
“That action split the party and paved the way for Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln’s election as President.”
In May 1858, as the Clotilda voyage was being planned, Yancey gave a three-day-long speech—the longest of his life—in Montgomery, calling for the reopening of the US slave trade. In April 1860, as the Clotilda was sailing to the West African coast, Yancey, by now representing an organization known euphemistically as the “African Labor Supply Association,” led a walkout of Southern Democrats at the Democratic National Convention because there wasn’t strong enough national support to protect slavery expansion. That action split the party and paved the way for Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln’s election as President, which in turn provoked the Southern states to vote to secede from the Union.
Yancey oversaw Jefferson Davis’ official welcome when the new Confederate president was inaugurated in Montgomery the following month. Rush Jones and his family were part of the horse-drawn presidential parade. By that stage, some of the Clotilda survivors were enslaved in the heart of the city.
3. The Clotilda crime was so well hidden that most of its survivors’ identities were unknown until now.
The Clotilda voyage was for decades dismissed by historians as a hoax. Instead, the Wanderer, which landed at Jekyll Island, Georgia in November 1858, was widely thought to be the last US slave ship. Nevertheless, those Clotilda survivors transplanted to Mobile became visible enough to attract significant interest from artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That group eventually bought their own land and created their own township north of Mobile, which they named “African Town.” They founded their own church and built a school to educate their children. By the early 20th century, African Town had become a prosperous community of two to three thousand people. The township, now known as Africatown, still survives, and descendants still live there. But that group of Clotilda survivors was much smaller than previously assumed. Only around a third of the survivors ended up in African Town.
Instead, many survivors were imprisoned on cotton fields near Montgomery and Selma. Those survivors found themselves economically bound to their former captors’ land once freedom came. They were largely hidden from outsiders, and when visitors did encounter them, they were told they were Wanderer survivors to conceal the crime that brought them to Alabama. Those survivors also established churches and asserted their independence in other ways. Remarkably, two of the Clotilda survivors imprisoned near Selma, a man named Ossa Allen and a woman known as Quilla Wheeler, somehow made their way 150 miles south to their lost shipmates in African Town more than two decades after the captives were sold and separated. They then settled in that community with their American partners and children.
4. Clotilda survivors were at the heart of a major artistic movement.
Many of the Clotilda survivors landed in or next door to Gee’s Bend. The quilting community of Gee’s Bend, Wilcox County, Alabama, is a collective of women artists whose visionary approach to quilt-making is now recognized as an important part of the United States’ cultural heritage. Gee’s Bend quilts are an unusual blend of bright colors and abstract shapes. Their distinctive patterns, which first gained national attention at the start of this century, are thought to have been influenced by strip weaving, a traditional West African method of cloth production in which strips of cloth are sewn together into a single fabric. Most of the Clotilda survivors came from Oyo in present-day southwest Nigeria, which had a long tradition of women strip weavers.
“Their distinctive patterns are thought to have been influenced by strip weaving, a traditional West African method of cloth production.”
One of the Clotilda survivors, Dinah Miller, was enslaved in a place called Snow Hill before relocating to Gee’s Bend in the 1890s. Dinah was the ancestor of many leading Gee’s Bend quilters. Other captives, such as Quilla Wheeler, who later relocated to African Town, and Matilda McCrear, the Clotilda’s youngest and last survivor, lived in or next door to Rehoboth, which borders Gee’s Bend and is regarded as part of the quilting community. Rehoboth was also the official base of the Freedom Quilting Bee, an important and overlapping quilting cooperative that emerged among voting rights campaigners during the Civil Rights Movement.
5. The links between the Clotilda survivors and the Civil Rights Movement are manifold and striking.
The Gee’s Bend connection wasn’t the Clotilda survivors’ only link to the Civil Rights Movement. Many of them lived well into the 20th century. The last of them knew future civil rights leaders and their lives and actions foreshadowed the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma Voting Rights campaign.
One of Rush Jones’ former captives, Bougier Moore, traveled to Montgomery to trade her foraged wares well into the 1920s. Her favorite trading spot was Dexter Avenue, where three decades later, Rosa Parks would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Civil rights leader E. D. Nixon grew up alongside Bougier and other former Rush Jones captives. Nixon’s willingness to mount a court challenge to bus segregation using Parks as a test case led to the bus boycott, and he almost led the anti-segregation movement before Dr Martin Luther King Jr took over. Komo, another of Rush Jones’ former Clotilda captives, lived for decades directly opposite the Dexter Parsonage in Montgomery, which was the home of Dr King when he led the bus boycott.
“The last of them knew future civil rights leaders and their lives and actions foreshadowed the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma Voting Rights campaign.”
Redoshi was 12 years old when she was kidnapped, renamed Sally Smith, and sold as the “bride” of another Clotilda survivor to Selma-based enslaver Washington McMurray Smith, a future Confederate state legislator and aide to Alabama’s Confederate governor. During the final years of her life, Redoshi was a friend of future civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson, who remembered her weekly encounters with the elderly woman as among her “richest experiences” in the 1930s. Boynton Robinson led a 30-year voting rights campaign in and around Selma with her husband, Samuel, and four others. Her invitation to Dr. King to visit Selma after her husband’s death culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Redoshi’s fellow Clotilda survivor and lifelong neighbor, Matilda McCrear, marched to Dallas County Courthouse in Selma in December 1931, the height of the Great Depression, to call for compensation for her kidnap and enslavement. Thirty-three years later, activists gathered at that same courthouse as part of the Selma Voting Rights campaign. They were met by the chair of the Board of Registrars, Victor Bethune Atkins, who had been Matilda McCrear’s landlord and employer for decades. Matilda died at the age of 81 or 82 in her daughter’s house in Selma in 1940, a mile away from an Alabama River crossing that was then under construction. The Edmund Pettus Bridge would later mark the starting point of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
To listen to the audio version read by author Hannah Durkin, download the Next Big Idea App today: