Today is Juneteenth, which is a day I never learned about in school. It celebrates the day that Union soldiers marched into Texas to announce that the slaves were free. Or, rather, that they had been free for the past 2.5 years. Because apparently we thought we could just say “slaves are free” and the southern slave owners would pass that information along on their own. It’s like when my daughter says “yes, my room’s clean… but don’t look at it!”
In honor of Juneteenth, I want to share some stories of the last slaves in America. We know slavery to be “a bad thing that happened a long time ago, and then it stopped. The end.” People (white people) want to be able to say that slavery was so long ago, why are we still talking about it? Racism is a thing of the past, what are all these whiny snowflakes going on about? You can’t blame your problems on something that happened to your great, great, great, great grandparents.
But here’s the thing – it wasn’t actually that long ago. Slave ships, which kidnapped and/or captured mostly children and teens (you could fit more kids than adults on a boat) from Africa and brought them to America, were outlawed in 1808. Obviously, that didn’t stop the ships from coming. One of the last known slave ship survivors died in 1937. Her name was Redoshi, and her owners renamed her Sally Smith. Her father was killed in a tribal war in West Africa, and she was kidnapped, sold to slavers, and brought to Alabama when she was 12 years old. On the auction block, she was paired with an adult man from another tribe who spoke another language than her, and they were sold as a husband and wife “set.” They had a child while they were still slaves, and stayed together for the rest of their lives. Emancipation came when she was 17, but she stayed working the fields of her former owner’s plantation until she died. She knew where she came from, and likely still had family members living in her village, but she had no way to go back home. We know so much about Redoshi because she was interviewed for a book, a newspaper, and was featured in a short film about the benefits of sharecropping (basically a propaganda piece to keep Black people working on their plantations and stop them from moving north).
It was discovered just this year that another woman, Matilda McCrear, was the final slave ship survivor. She was brought here as an infant, and died in 1940. She was on the same slave ship as Redoshi.
I want to pause here. There are people living today who knew someone who was brought here on a slave ship. Think about that for a second. Really think about it. People are alive today who KNEW someone who was brought here on a slave ship. How royally messed up is that?
One of the last confirmed Americans born into slavery, Eliza Moore, was born in 1843, and died in 1948. Emancipation came when she was 22, and she became a sharecropper with her husband. She spent 22 years as a slave, and she lived to see the invention of the microwave oven.
A man named Alfred “Teen” Blackburn, who was born into slavery in 1842, remembered having the best job on the plantation. He got to stay inside and shoo flies from the table, serve guests at fancy parties, and take care of the children. He was given this special job because of the light skin he got from his owner-father. He is recorded as fighting in the Civil War, where he was listed as the “body servant” of his owner-father, and he served at the First Battle of Bull Run. He did not use a gun, but was given a knife to protect himself. He died in 1951.
The last American slave (though it can’t be confirmed – birth certificates weren’t given to slaves, and records were lost after the Civil War), claimed to have been born in 1841. His name was Sylvester Magee, and he served on both sides of the Civil War. He never learned to read or write, but historians who spoke to him said he could describe events from the war as only a person who had fought there would be able to do. He had four wives, three of whom he outlived. He fathered 7 children, the last at the age of 107 (no thank you). He claimed that he never drank alcohol in his life, but he smoked cigarettes for 108 years. He died in 1971.
Slavery is not some long-forgotten institution. People still live who knew the survivors. We’re hearing every day from Black people who say that the system is working against them, and the system keeps trying to argue that each individual is completely responsible for what the system does to them. You can’t tell me that we have moved past the repercussions of slavery when the people who were directly affected are still in society’s living memory. This wrong will not be righted any time soon without a decisive and purposeful decision to make changes for the better.
Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that Black lives, and their stories, matter.