Amistad’s new course
The Day | January 27, 2016
A recent meeting with the leaders of Discovering Amistad, the new nonprofit organization that now owns the Amistad, left the Editorial Board encouraged that they finally have it sailing in the right direction.
The two-master schooner is a replica built at the Mystic Seaport of the Amistad that in 1839 was seized by African captives being transported to Cuba to be sold into slavery. Supported by the abolitionist movement, they waged a legal fight that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and secured their freedom and the right to return to Africa.
In recent years, however, the replica ship, operated by the now defunct Amistad America, became a symbol not of freedom but of government incompetence. The state legislature continued to authorize millions of dollars to support the ship without any accountability concerning its mission and in spite of a dysfunctional board. The Amistad was spending much of its time out of state.
By the time Attorney General George Jepsen intervened in 2014, Amistad owed creditors more than $2 million. The receivership proceedings dissolved those debts and the ship was sold by the state to the new group, Discovering Amistad, for $315,000. The State Bond Commission authorized $620,000 to cover the purchase price and repairs to the 16-year-old vessel.
The new board is strong and diverse. Chairman Len Miller, a retired certified public accountant, said the board will be closely involved with Amistad’s mission and provide regular accounting to the state. Mr. Miller founded the 25-year-old Soundwaters marine education program, which operates out of Stamford.
Discovering Amistad is setting a clear course by developing a strategic plan. Its primary mission will be educational, with curriculum devised for classroom application to supplement lessons learned when students get the chance to visit and sail on Amistad. It will not be stagnant history, but presented with applications for discussing contemporary issues of race relations and law, said Vice Chairwoman Alexis Smith, deputy director of New Haven Legal Assistance.
Amistad’s focus will be Connecticut, spending warmer months moving between ports serving New London, New Haven and Bridgeport. While a future homeport in New London would make sense, the effort to make this “Connecticut’s ship” is understandable, as are the considerations tied to attracting funding.
While Mr. Miller said Discovery Amistad will aim to become more fiscally self-sufficient, it will take time. This year, the state will provide $342,000 through a state Department Community and Economic.
This effort appears to offer a last, best chance for the Amistad to succeed.