Discovering Amistad: Exploring Connecticut’s Role in Black History
Feb 25, 2020
February marks Black History Month, an annual celebration of the central role of blacks in U.S. history. In recognition, our President & CEO Juanita James sat down with Kai Perry, a member of the Board of Directors for Discovering Amistad, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that provides hands-on history lessons on a full-sized replica of the historic ship. The 1839 revolt of West African captives aboard the Amistad and their later trial in Connecticut courts shaped the future of civil rights in America, and continues to have an impact on today’s world.
James: Kai, we’re thrilled to work with Discovering Amistad as a nonprofit partner of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. How did you get involved with your organization?
Perry: I went to college at a historically black university, Hampton University. I was encouraged to join the sailing team, and eventually became captain. That brought me a great sense of pride, because Hampton is the only black collegiate sailing team in the country. To participate in this coed sport and compete against elite schools was a great accomplishment for me.
After college, I went back home to Toledo, Ohio, where my mother was part of the host committee that raised money to bring the Amistad (Connecticut’s flagship replica of the original historic ship), to the Great Lakes. One day, she “voluntold” me to go down and help out.
There, I met two black crew members who told me their contract on the ship was ending. The ship’s next port of call was Detroit, and I thought, “You’re going to sail this slave ship to Detroit with an all-white crew?” I thought it was deplorable.
When I went home that night, my mother had just talked with Bill Pinkney, who was the captain of the Amistad at that time and a legend in his own right. He was the first African-American to solo circumnavigate the world by sail. She had learned they were looking for crew members, and encouraged me to join.
I told her, “No way, Mom. I enjoy the comforts of home. I’m not living on a boat.” But moms have their way of being persuasive, and I knew I had to do it. So I quit my job, met the ship in Detroit, and sailed all around the country – and eventually, even to England and Sierra Leone. I’m still here in Connecticut today, where our educational nonprofit Discovering Amistad is headquartered.
James: Can you tell me the story of the Amistad uprising of 1839?
Perry: The story actually begins on a Portugese vessel called the Tecora that came to the shores of Sierra Leone in 1839. Hundreds of people had been kidnapped and held at the harbor, and about 500 people were put on board the Tecora. They set sail to Cuba, where many plantation owners were ready to make their bids.
In Cuba, 53 people were purchased and put aboard the Amistad – 49 adult men and four children, which included three girls and one boy. The Amistad itself wasn’t a slave ship, but a coastal schooner designed to transport perishable goods.
These 53 West Africans were en route from Havana to the other side of Cuba when, three days into that journey, one of them found a loose nail and used it to free himself of shackles. The captives stormed the deck and took over the ship, killing the captain and the cook.
There was no one to sail the ship effectively, and they got lost at sea and caught up in the Gulf Stream, which brought them towards the U.S. They were spotted off Montauk Point and brought into New Haven Harbor, where the Africans were jailed because they didn’t speak the language and could not tell their story.
Some students at Yale and members of the United Church of Christ came together to teach the group how to read English, and even found someone who could translate. With the help of John Quincy Adams, the captives were able to defend themselves in court and tell the truth about being illegally kidnapped from their homeland. They ultimately won this court case at the Supreme Court level. This is the first time that people of African descent were tried as human beings and not property, so some will argue that it’s the first civil rights case in the United States.
James: How did the educational component of Discovering Amistad come about, and why?
Perry: The Amistad incident is such a powerful story to draw connections to the social injustices we’re experiencing today. It’s a way to acknowledge Connecticut history, our history of civil rights and human rights, and teach young people this story of perseverance and explore what freedom really means.
We’ve worked hard to create a curriculum designed by social studies teachers that aligns with the Common Core standards and Connecticut schools. Currently, we are in public schools in New London, Bridgeport and New Haven; and we’re hoping to expand. Our educators go into the classroom and provide three days of lesson plans, and then students have the opportunity to come on board the ship for a sail to culminate their experience.
In the summer, we run a Summer Leadership Academy where students get to be on board for two weeks at a time. We target juniors and seniors, who have to be recommended by their counselors. They spend two weeks sailing to visit colleges, so there’s a college readiness component as well as learning leadership skills. For young people, even if they don’t continue to sail, it teaches them they can go out and do anything.
We want the ship to be like a floating classroom, not just for young people, but also for adults. It’s a way students of all ages can touch, feel and have a tangible experience to apply what they’ve learned.
The Freedom Institute is another program we’re just getting off the ground. In addition to educating youth about social justice and racial equity, we recognize adults need those opportunities as well. So we are offering more cultural types of events, which may include implicit bias trainings, conversations about current issues, and just providing a space for adults to come together and have dialogue.
James: How can the public explore this history with Discovering Amistad?
Perry: Everyone should come out and experience the Amistad, and bring a friend. Do your due diligence, read up on the history and be inspired by these 53 Africans who risked their lives so we could have opportunities for freedom today. We owe it to them to learn and share this history.
Reach out to us via our website at DiscoveringAmistad.org, or come see the ship. If you’re driving on 95 and see the masts, pull over and go talk to the crew and get involved. We’re constantly updating the website to let people know where the ship is in the Long Island Sound, and when the vessel will be open for public tours. There’s never a charge.