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Eighteen sixth-graders from Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School walked through downtown New London on Thursday morning on their way to a rendezvous with history and lessons on modern race relations.
The students boarded the replica schooner Amistad in roughly the same place as the original ship it was patterned after landed in 1839, with its mutinous crew from West Africa in custody, having freed themselves and commandeered the ship from their captors before being apprehended off Long Island.
But the delegation from Bennie Dover already knew the story from classroom lectures given by members of the Amistad's deck and teaching crew, who use the 179-year-old story of how the Amistad captives, having been kidnapped at home in Africa, secured their freedom through the American legal system to teach broader lessons about dignity, modern race relations, social justice and empowerment.
The kids listened raptly to lessons on deck, raised hands and asked questions and then helped sail the ship, pulling lines, taking the wheel, learning a bit how daunting it must have been for the Africans, having freed themselves from shackles in the hold, to learn how to manage a ship at sea and somehow try to find their way home. They eventually did, but not before their lawyer, John Quincy Adams, won their release, with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sailing for the morning with the Bennie Dover students was a happy ending for me of the story of the modern Amistad, a ship built by the state at Mystic Seaport in 2000 to commemorate the famous Connecticut story. By the time I started writing about it in 2013, I had discovered the organization formed to run the ship, at state expense, had not filed tax returns for three years and had lost its nonprofit status.
Indeed, the board of directors was defunct and the ship had been moved out of state, where it was leased out to a sail training organization.
The pirates who had made off with the ship, while still cashing the state's checks, eventually gave in and relinquished the schooner after Attorney General George Jepsen intervened and set up a receivership in Superior Court.
What I learned Thursday morning, as the Bennie Dover students were asked to repeat out loud parts of the original Amistad story, is that the successor organization set up to steward the ship and its programs, Discovering Amistad, seems to have hit its groove.
Len Miller of Essex, the volunteer chairman of the new nonprofit, has assembled a vigorous and talented board of directors and has guided the Amistad into a new mission focused solely on education.
In addition to the classroom and sailing program for youngers students during the school year — 15 school districts and 2,500 students have participated already — Amistad does summer cruises with high school juniors focused on college ambitions. The students, while learning the Amistad story, also take seminars on things to help them apply to college, like financial aid and essay writing.
The young adults chosen for the summer programs are recommended by school officials and often are some of the highest achievers in their classes.
The subsidies for Amistad, which is the official state ship, have declined, and the program got $263,000 from the state in operating subsidies this year.
That's about half the total budget, Miller said, and the plan is to completely wean the organization from state operating subsidies.
Private fundraising has been very successful, and the outlook is good, Miller added.
"To use the sailing term, the wind is at our back," he said.
I was especially impressed with the crew of seven that has been assembled by Amistad's newest captain, Rose Witte of Redding, who had a broad background in tall-ship sailing.
The crewmembers seem especially adept at not just sail training but in helping to educate the kids, engaging with them to teach not only the particulars of sailing a ship but how the story of the captives and their perseverance can relate to modern life.
One of the Bennie Dover teachers on the ship Thursday was Darryl Semple, the father of state Rep. Chris Soto. Semple told me he saw tears in some of the kids' eyes when they heard the story of how the Amistad captives finally found someone who could speak their language and help them tell American authorities how they were captured from their homeland and ended up in shackles in a schooner, destined to be sold as slaves.
"Two hundred years later, what happened to these people is still being told," Semple told me.
It's a remarkable Connecticut story, now being told well, with a little help from the state and a lot of generous donations from people who realize how well it resonates today, in a country that still needs to learn and talk about race relations so long after slaves were freed.
This is the opinion of David Collins.