Forced Marriage as a 12-Year-Old Girl: The Life of America’s Last Slave Ship Survivor

AFRICAN HISTORY

Redoshi was taken to America on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship. She lived until 1937.

Like many African people forced into American slavery, Redoshi was only a child when slave traders chained her to their boat. Kidnapped at age 12 in what is now Benin, she became a prisoner on the Clotildathe last known slave ship to smuggle people into the United States. And, as one scholar in the United Kingdom has discovered, she became the last known surviving member of that ship: Redoshi lived until 1937, a full 72 years after slavery’s abolition.

Before scholar Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University identified Redoshi, the last known survivor of the Clotilda was Oluale Kossola, a man captured at age 19 in West Africa who lived until 1935 as “Cudjo Lewis.” Both he and Redoshi were among the more than 100 African children, teenagers and young adults who arrived in Alabama on the illegal slave ship in 1860, one year before the Civil

Slave traders forced the 12-year-old Redoshi to be the “wife” of an adult enslaved man who spoke a different language. The traders then sold Redoshi and the man as a couple to Washington Smith, founder of Alabama’s Bank of Selma. Later, Redoshi described this forced child marriage to the civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson.

“I was 12 years old and he was a man from another tribe who had a family in Africa,” Redoshi is quoted as saying in Boynton Robinson’s memoir, Bridge Across Jordan. “I couldn’t understand his talk and he couldn’t understand me. They put us on block together and sold us for man and wife.

Redoshi known as Sally Smith after becoming enslaved, in an instructional film released by the Department of Agriculture in 1938 called "The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living."
Redoshi known as Sally Smith after becoming enslaved, in an instructional film released by the Department of Agriculture in 1938 called “The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living.”Department of Agriculture via The New York Times/Redux

For nearly five years, Redoshi worked in the house and the fields of Smith’s Bogue Chitto plantation in Dallas County. Smith also forced her to take a new name, “Sally Smith.” Redoshi conceived and gave birth to her daughter on the plantation. When emancipation came to all states on June 19, 1865—aka Juneteenth—Redoshi was only about 17 years old. 

With few options, and no means to travel back home to her family in West Africa, she continued to live on the Bogue Chitto plantation with her daughter. She and other enslaved people later came to own around 6,000 acres of land on the plantation, where she spent the rest of her life.

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