When Steven Spielberg decided to cast Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams and retell the story of Joseph Cinque and his seizure of La Amistad, he couldn’t possibly imagine the effect it would have on New Haven’s City Hall.
In 1997, Spielberg premiered his version of the story of the Amistad, right on the heels of the launch of a replica of the ship and the installation of several permanent exhibitions at local historical societies’ museums. Now, no Black History Month is complete without an Amistad-themed event. As the commemoration officially ends today, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. managed to fit the bill with a youth art contest inspired by the ship’s journey.
Despite a recent surge of interest in the story, those involved in teaching efforts are reluctant to attribute any increase in attention to the success of the movie.
“We’ve been working with Amistad artifacts a hell of a lot longer than Mr. Spielberg,” said the curator of the New Haven Colony Historical Society whose permanent exhibit, “Cinque lives here” opened in June 1997 –three months after the Spielberg movie premiered.
The Amistad Memorial at City Hall and the exhibit at the historical society are just two of many local efforts to increase awareness of the relationship between New Haven and the events of the Amistad.
In 1839, the Spanish slave-trading ship La Amistad kidnapped 53 Africans from Sierra Leone. Under the leadership of Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinque, they seized the ship in efforts to return to Africa, but the Spanish slave traders were still able to direct the boat toward America. Eventually, La Amistad docked in the Long Island Sound and was towed to New London. The ensuing civil rights battle reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams won freedom for the Africans.
A sesquicentennial later, New Haven decided to honor the historical happenstance that linked the city with the Amistad.
In 1992, the city dedicated the three-sided bronze relief to memorialize the site where New Haveners served as jailers for the Africans. The statue’s eastward facing tableau shows the beginning of the story, when Cinque lived undisturbed in Africa, and stands overlooking the rush-hour traffic that largely ignores it every afternoon.
Elizabeth Jones, who is a processing clerk at the Department of Vital Statistics, hurried past the memorial to the bus stop at Church and Elm streets.
“I certainly care a lot about it,” Jones said, “but I’m sure it interests me more than people who are not of color.”
New Haven has invested much since 1992 to educate its citizens about the role the city played in early American race relations, but the message may still not have reached all ears.
“Success is relative,” said Will Mebane, vice president for development and marketing for Amistad America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education. “Have we achieved our mission of making all people aware of the Amistad and more seriously committed to open discussions of race? Of course not. But have we made a successful start? Certainly.”
Mebane had never heard the story of the Amistad before his 8- and 12-year-old sons returned from a church event in New Haven. Blair and Karreem, he said, had never been so excited about anything.
“I pride myself as someone knowledgeable about history,” Mebane added with a sigh, “and I was ashamed to have never heard of this.”
As a result, he began to research the event and eventually joined the board of directors of Amistad America, which has helped to rebuild the Amistad ship at the Mystic Seaport. The project was launched in December 1997 as a teaching vessel and travels up and down the Atlantic Coast.
The second tableau of Cinque faces north, directly into the office of Leonard Aronow, a senior public advocate for City Hall’s citizen service center. Aronow, a New Haven resident, is eager to hand out pamphlets about the statue but nevertheless has limited knowledge about the Amistad.
He said he thinks the exhibits at the New Haven Historical Society and the replica ship are mostly for students on field trips, not for adults who are busier, and admits he has never seen either.
“We were all kind of upset the movie wasn’t made here because it is an important part of our history,” he said, “but I don’t think we should take too much care to distinguish this from any of the other statues around here.”
Keeping his hands in the pockets of his khaki Dockers, Aronow turned his back to the wind. He leaned over the monument to run his finger over a place where the lettering was worn and repeated the words, “Make us free.”
“I think Yale should make it a point to make students very involved in this city and its history,” he said, “and I guess adults should try to work it into their schedule.”
Jogging to his car, Nick Posiotopoulous, another New Haven resident, stopped to tie his shoelace on the edge of Pieh’s memorial. He had neither heard of the Amistad Friendship Quilt project that makes blankets for the crew of the new version of the Amistad nor of the new boat itself.
“I live in Connecticut, and until that movie came out, I had no idea it happened in New Haven,” Posiotopoulous said.