The Freedom Schooner Amistad, a historical replica of a slave ship, has returned to the Elm City for public tours.
On Saturday morning, Mayor Toni Harp and Gov. Dannel Malloy spoke at a ceremony at Long Wharf Dock commemorating the historic ship, built in 1999. Over 50 people attended the ceremony that concluded with tours of the ship. Since 2015, the Amistad has been under the management of Discovering Amistad, an educational nonprofit. Most recently, the ship traveled to New London and Bridgeport, where the organization held educational tours for high school students from around the state. Its next destination is Mystic Seaport, where the schooner will spend the winter.
The ship holds historic ties to the city and state. In 1839, Mende captives transported from Sierra Leone seized control of the Amistad, the Spanish ship bringing them to the United States. The ship was captured and brought to New London Harbor, where the captives faced the choice of execution or returning to slavery. However, Connecticut residents took up the captives’ cause: The case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the captives their freedom in 1841.
“All Sierra Leonians in the United States consider New Haven to be the Mecca of Sierra Leone,” said Mohamed Barrie, honorary consul at the Sierra Leone Consulate Mission in Boston.
Barrie traveled to New Haven for the ceremony following an invitation from the city. He was part of a delegation that returned to Sierra Leone to find wood for the ship’s construction in 1999.
He added that he believes Sierra Leone has the longest historical ties with the U.S. of any African country because of the “Amistad episode.”
“[The Amistad] is a story of oppression but it’s also a story of empowerment, of what can happen when people of all colors come together for justice,” said Len Miller, board chair of Discovering Amistad. “We all know that we’re not all free yet.”
Alexis Smith, Discovering Amistad vice chair, said the organization has been working to educate both youth and adults on the ship’s story. Currently, the organization is collaborating with New London schools to integrate the Amistad into its social studies curriculum and plans to start working with New Haven Public Schools in the spring, Smith said.
The Freedom Institute — the adult education program Discovering Amistad is developing — is working to establish community partners and begin hosting workshops in February focused on topics such as the Amistad’s legal history, the contributions of African-American people to music in the U.S. and the effects of implicit bias today, she added.
Saturday’s ceremony opened with a performance by the local Unity Boys Choir, which sung a traditional Zulu song in honor of the occasion, and included the raising of the New Haven and Connecticut flags. The Rev. Brian Bellamy of the Friendship Baptist Church in Hamden gave an invocation honoring those who have sought refuge in New Haven.
Harp spoke on the significance of the Amistad case on the fledgling American abolitionist movement and New Haven’s reputation as a city of acceptance.
In his turn speaking, Malloy gave more historical background on the ship, and explained that Martin Van Buren had not wanted the captives freed as he believed it would cost him the presidential election. Malloy also spoke on other aspects of Connecticut’s history, including the founding of the first school for women of color in Canterbury by Prudence Crandall and the role Connecticut served in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Hamden resident Shadeed Sharpe said he enjoyed seeing the ship and learning more about its history after having grown up reading about it and watching a movie depiction of the event.
“It is pretty cool to be this close and touch history,” Sharpe said.
Connecticut officially abolished slavery in 1848.