Courtesy of Lenny Speiller

Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven and Mayor-elect Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone met at the Amistad Memorial in front of City Hall to reaffirm New Haven and Freetown’s mutual commitments last Thursday. 

New Haven and Freetown formally became “Sister Cities” in 1996, forming a cultural and financial bond between the two cities. 

New Haven supported Freetown through the COVID-19 pandemic and Ebola crisis, and Freetown has supported New Haven in various “rich cultural and educational exchanges,” per the Reaffirmation of Sister Cities Declaration and Agreement issued by both mayors. 

“The visit of Mayor-elect Aki-Sawyerr was both symbolic and reaffirming of our relationship as sister cities, but also a strong reminder of how much more work we have to do to confront societal and racial inequities,” Elicker said.

During the meeting near City Hall, Aki-Sawyerr said that climate change and political unrest are some of the biggest issues facing Freetown, especially as its population continues to grow rapidly.

Aki-Sawyerr explained that as Freetown’s population surpassed one million, many of the town’s greenspaces have disappeared, making environmental concerns more pressing.

“I’m guessing that because we are in the U.S., [New Haven] is gonna be a major emitter of greenhouse gasses because all those cars are contributing,” Aki-Sawyerr said. “There are policies that need to come into effect that I am sure you’re already doing. What I’d say from [Freetown’s] side is that we’re the ones on the bicycle who’ve been hit by the people in the limousine.”   

After the Amistad event on Sept. 14, Elicker and Aki-Sawyerr met alongside other international municipal leaders to discuss climate change and the environment at the Hixon Center Urban Conference last Friday, which was held at the Yale School of the Environment. Though the conference at the University was the primary reason for Aki-Sawyerr’s visit to the United States, both leaders state that the reaffirmation of the bond between New Haven and Freetown was an equally important priority. 

The relationship between the two cities dates back to the Amistad ship in June 1839, when 53 enslaved Africans who were being transported between Havana and Guanaja, Cuba, overthrew their captors and demanded the ship be sailed back to Africa and to their freedom. 

Overnight, though, the Amistad’s crew redirected the ship toward the United States, eventually landing in the Long Island Sound. The captive Africans were taken to New London, Conn., where they were charged with a number of crimes. After their sentencing, they were relocated to New Haven to await trial.

Following a lengthy multi-year trial, the 35 surviving Africans were released and granted passage back to Africa. Freetown, Sierra Leone — Aki-Sawyerr’s city — accepted the freed Africans after the proceedings.

Since 1841, New Haven and Freetown have continued their relationship through mutual support and continued acknowledgement of the events related to the Amistad ship. In collaboration with Freetown, New Haven erected the Amistad Memorial next to City Hall in 1992.

Mayor Elicker said that the memorial has become a gathering place for protests and demonstrations, particularly those addressing systemic racism. 

“Resilience is the word that comes to mind,” Mayor-elect Aki-Sawyerr said, when asked about the memorial. “Perseverance. Courage. All words which make what [the captives of the Amistad] did back then possible, and all words that we still need in our world today.”

New Haven has sister city agreements with seven other cities in Israel, Italy, France, Vietnam, Nicaragua, China and Mexico. 

Kim Futrell, community outreach coordinator for the city of New Haven, wrote to the News that these agreements, dating back to the late 1970s, have fostered awareness and appreciation of other countries through the development of education, cultural, economic and other relations.

“Sister Cities allow for the celebration of our differences and commonalities,” Futrell wrote.

“Over the years there have been successful student exchanges, educational supplies and [the] ability to provide support for health [crises].” 

This is the 46th year of New Haven’s Sister Cities programs.