The freedom schooner Amistad, built at Mystic Seaport, Conn., sets sail on June 13, 2000. Photo: copyright Mystic Seaport
But the Amistad is no slave ship. In fact, she was a cargo vessel that in 1839 acquired 53 African captives, but later sailed into history as a symbol of unity, faith and freedom.
The 53 Mendi captives were kidnapped from West Africa and nearly sold as slaves. The young leader, Singbe Pieh, asserted their rights as free people with the stirring words, "All we want is make us free!"
Abolitionists, free blacks and New England Congregationalists, forebears of the UCC, helped defend, educate and care for the Mendi captives.
Today, a replica of the Amistad sails as a floating classroom. The UCC, with a gift of $225,000, remains committed to being a voice of the voiceless and keepers of the story and legacy of the Amistad. The Amistad replica was built at Mystic Seaport, Conn., by 60 artisans and volunteers at a cost of $3.1 million. Since launching in March, Amistad has brought its message of tolerance and unity to many ports of call.
In Harlem, thousands of people visited Amistad while docked in Riverbank State Park. A program at nearby Schomberg Center included Maya Angelou, The Boys Choir of Harlem, Max Roach and other celebrities.
In every port, people have thronged to board the Amistad. Will Mebane, Vice President of Amistad America, Inc., says he is overwhelmed. "Once, in a downpour, I saw people as far as I could see waiting to board the Amistad," says Mebane. "Old people, young people, black people, white people, children and mothers with baby carriages, elderly people with walkers and canes."
While in line, people discuss race and politics, and teach each other, even as they wait to be taught. Some would call this inclination for spontaneous dialogue the "Amistad Effect." "This is just what we were hoping," says Mebane, "that Amistad would serve as a catalyst for discussions about race."
The Amistad crew consists of nine sailors and four seasonal volunteers. The crew stays busy managing the boarding crowd, so patrons learn the story of Amistad from displays all around the boat.
Amistad recently ended its stay in the Hartford (Conn.) area, where First Church of Christ UCC of Farmington supervised an Amistad Celebration. But Farmington was more than just another stop—it's where the freed Mendi captives settled while working with the community to charter a boat and return to Sierra Leone. More than 100,000 people came across the deck of the Amistad during her stay.
The Rev. Ned Edwards, Senior Minister, says he was struck by the varying reactions to the Amistad. "People got on stroking and touching it, as if the ship was an animate object," he says. "Others were so moved that they began crying uncontrollably."
From its current port in New Haven, Conn., Amistad will go to New London before finally docking for the season in Mystic Seaport. Next season, she'll be off again, reaching and teaching, building bridges into the future.