The Last Slaves

The Lost Stories of the Last Survivors of the American Slave Trade

Hannah Durkin

Proposal in English History

The Last Slaves tells the stories of the final survivors of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to land on US soil which docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama in July 1860; fully 52 years after a federal law banning the importation of slaves to the country, and a mere 9 months before the onset of Civil War. The subjects of Hannah’s book, who ranged in age from two to nineteen when kidnapped, died between 1922 and 1940. They were not just the last survivors of the Clotilda, but the last documented survivors of any slave ship, and thus the final act of a terrible, hugely significant, period in world history.

Over the past three years, Hannah’s scholarly research has brought to life the lives of five survivors of the Clotilda, two of which have been identified as survivors for the very first time in this book. Her research into Redoshi/Sally Smith and Matilda McCrear made news worldwide, with media coverage from the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, NPR and the BBC among many others. Her published research into one survivor, Cudjoe Lewis/Oluale Kossola in 2017 was instrumental in the ultimate publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 manuscript Barracoon, an NYT bestseller in 2018.

Drawing together the original research that has been at the heart of Dr. Durkin’s career, documenting the astonishing lives of the last slaves, this book promises to tell the incredible narrative of these five survivors. The individual stories represent years of archival, historical and sociological research to piece together five incredible stories: from kidnap in modern day Benin through a terrifying 45 day journey across the Middle Passage and the subsequent sale of the 110 African men, women and children into slavery across Alabama; to an illicit, long-term relationship with a white common-law ‘husband;’ an intersection with the early stirrings of the civil rights movement in Selma; the foundation of all-Black African Town (later Africatown) in Northern Mobile; inspiration for writers of the Harlem Renaissance (including Zora Neale Hurston); and the foundation of Gee’s Bend quiltmaker’s community – an early, ongoing, black artistic community whose cultural value remains extremely high.

The Last Slaves uncovers a crucial piece of American history, shedding light on the realities of slavery and its long reach into the 20th century and beyond. With key insights into the harsh realities that shaped the daily lives of African Americans, the enormous cultural impact of enslaved persons and their descendants, and the direct links between the burgeoning civil rights movement of the first half of the Twentieth Century and these last survivors of the middle passage, this book is a vital and fascinating exploration of untold – and previously unknown narratives.

The Last Slaves interweaves archival research and historical narrative into an astonishing, deeply compelling tapestry. It promises to be an essential narrative for years to come, an historical tour-de-force and a great commercial success.