Honoring the Amistad and
Connecticut’s Role in
the Underground Railroad
May 16, 1997 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to join nearly 60 of my colleagues to introduce the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Bill. This important measure will help to preserve historic stops on the Underground Railroad throughout the country so that we can remember and celebrate the courage of those who used the Underground Railroad in search of freedom from tyranny and oppression.
Slavery is not an easy chapter in our nation’s history to remember. But it should not be forgotten. And the Underground Railroad is especially important to remember and memorialize, because it helps us all to deal with this dark chapter in American history when men and women fought against the institution of slavery to further the cause of freedom, even at their own peril.
There are African-American churches in my hometown of New Haven, CT, such as the Varick AME Episcopal Church and the Dixwell Avenue Unitarian Church of Christ, that were waystations for escaped slaves traveling through the Underground Railroad. Many slaves passed through New Haven as they traveled toward freedom in more northern points such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Canada. But many children growing up in New Haven today do not know of the role their town played in this chapter of our history.
In particular, New Haven was thrust into the center of the dispute between the forces supporting slavery and those working for freedom when the sailing ship Amistad arrived in the Long Island Sound in the summer of 1839. The Amistad was a slave ship that set sail from Havana, Cuba, on June 28, 1839, with 53 Africans who had been kidnapped from their homeland and were on their way to another Cuban port and a lifetime of slavery.
These brave Africans, led by Sengbe Pieh, fought for their lives and freedom. They took control of the ship and forced its Spanish owners to sail toward Africa, using the sun as their compass. However, the Spaniards sailed northward at night, hoping to come ashore in a Southern slave State. Instead, the ship entered the waters of the Long Island Sound and was taken into custody by the U.S. Navy.
The Africans were put in a New Haven jail while a court battle was waged to determine if they would be slaves or free men and women. This dispute forced the country to consider the moral, social, religious, and political questions surrounding slavery. Many members of the New Haven community pulled together to work to secure the Africans’ freedom, including the congregation of the Center Church on Temple Street and students and faculty at the Yale University Divinity School. Finally, in February 1841 the Africans — who were defended by former President John Quincy Adams — were declared free by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In March 1841 the Africans of the Amistad moved to live in Farmington, CT, while funds were raised to finance their return to the area that is now Sierra Leone in Africa. The 37 surviving Africans finally reached their homeland in January 1842.
There are several memorials in New Haven commemorating the Amistad and the story of the brave Africans who fought for their liberty on its decks. A statute of Sengbe Pieh, who is also known as Joseph Cinque, sits in front of the City Hall. Plans are underway for a life-size working replica of the ship to be docked on Long Wharf, with exhibitions and programs on African-American history and the long fight for true freedom.
I am glad to see this important part of Connecticut’s history recognized. I am so proud to be an original cosponsor of this bill which will ensure that the monuments of the Underground Railroad’s route in Connecticut and throughout the country will be protected and preserved so that future generations can remember this remarkable time in our history.
Source: Congressional Record 143, no. 10. 105th Congress, 1st session. (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1997, E962.