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Diving into history: Searches for sunken slave ships become personal journeys for Black explorers

 'Diving with a Purpose' lead dive instructor, Jay Haigler, cradles a stone from a ballast pile in Coral Bay, St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The stones have been key to identifying slave ships, often used to balance the weight of captives in a ship's cargo hold.
David Doubilet, National Geographic
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'Diving with a Purpose' lead dive instructor, Jay Haigler, cradles a stone from a ballast pile in Coral Bay, St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The stones have been key to identifying slave ships, often used to balance the weight of captives in a ship's cargo hold.

I've met a Black woman whose journey just takes my breath away.

Tara Roberts, of Atlanta, is a National Geographic Explorer. And for the last few years, she’s been following Black scuba divers as they document wreckage from slave ships.

Roberts’ life on this journey of exploration began after visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“It was a picture that literally changed the direction of my life,” said Roberts. “It was a picture of primarily Black women, in wetsuits on a boat, and I was just struck by them.”

That’s all it took.

Roberts quit her job and learned how to scuba dive so she could join them. They are part of an organization called “Diving with a Purpose.” Roberts believes in their cause.

“As I got to know the divers, the ships they had found, the stories of those who had been captured, I realized this was a way to come to grips with those 400 years — with this traumatic history,” said Roberts.

 National Geographic Explorer, Tara Roberts, stands for a portrait at her grandfather's abandoned home in Edenton, NC, June 13, 2021.
Wayne Lawrence, National Geographic
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National Geographic Explorer, Tara Roberts, stands for a portrait at her grandfather's abandoned home in Edenton, NC, June 13, 2021.

More than 150 years after the emancipation of enslaved Africans in America, bits and pieces, trinkets and ledgers authenticating the treacherous journey people took through the Middle Passage are still being found.

Roberts’ journey as an explorer has also propelled her to investigate her own family tree, rooted deep on the North Carolina coast in Edenton.

“I think there was a part of me that was really afraid, on some level to face the fact that my ancestor had been enslaved,” said Roberts.

Today, I would hope textbooks are catching up and explaining how millions of African slaves ended up in the “New World.” But we still don’t know a lot about the 1.8 million enslaved Africans who died in the ocean on some 1,000 ships that sank.

Roberts told her story for the March 2022 edition of National Geographic magazine. She is the first African American female explorer to grace its cover. She also hosts the National Geographic podcast, “Into the Depths,” chronicling the work of Black divers, historians, and archeologists.

 National Geographic Explorer, Tara Roberts, on the March 20222 cover of National Geographic.
National Geographic
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National Geographic Explorer, Tara Roberts, on the March 20222 cover of National Geographic.

Roberts says she knew she was on the right track when she met Dr. Albert Jose Jones, the co-founder of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

In “Into the Depths,” Jones tells Roberts about his experience documenting slave ship wreckage from the Henrietta Marie, off of Key West, Fla.

"It felt eerie. It felt like diving on a gravesite. It felt like you were touching the souls of your ancestors when you were down there. And it involves people who could have been your own family.”
Dr. Albert Jose Jones, National Association of Black Scuba Divers

I must admit, my conversation with Roberts brought me to tears. Her emotional journey felt personal, because it was. I was born in Mobile, Ala., a stop included on Roberts’ exploration. Off the coast of Mobile, in the Mobile River, explorers continue to search for remnants of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States. It was an illegal slave ship, making a run to Benin, West Africa, as late as 1860, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Roberts’ work opens the door for all of us to find our people, wherever they are, even if that means searching the ocean floor.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.