Published in The Day

By Claire Bessette

Norwich ― A spray of water from the Norwich Fire Department fire boat escorted the schooner Amistad into the Marina at American Wharf at Norwich Harbor Monday for its first visit to Norwich in over a decade, and more than 60 people gathered on shore to greet the vessel with music, dancing and speeches.

The Amistad, built in 2000 at Mystic Seaport, is a replica of the early 19th-century ship that made history in 1839, when 53 African captives took over the ship and attempted to force the surviving crew to return to Africa. The crew secretly steered westward at night, and the zigzag journey ended up in New London. With support from New England abolitionists, the captives eventually won their freedom in 1841 in a famous U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Paula Mann-Agnew, executive director of Discovering Amistad, which purchased the vessel in 2015 for year-round educational programs, told the audience that when the group chose Norwich to launch its 2023 “Voyage for Freedom” tour of Connecticut ports, her phone kept ringing with support from Norwich groups wanting to help. The outpouring, she said, exemplifies Amistad’s story of people coming together to support the cause of freedom.

Mann-Agnew said the Norwich Fire Department immediately offered to provide its water salute. Other city departments helped with logistics, as did the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce. Chelsea Groton Bank not only funded the trip and four-day stay but also handed out Norwich-made Mini Melt ice cream cups. Evangelical Psalm 23 Church offered to chauffeur the 14-member Amistad crew back to Mystic in its church van.

And on Sunday, Mann-Agnew said, she received “an incredible email” from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut providing a $12,000 grant for a youth leadership academy in Norwich.

“We are so thrilled to be here in Norwich today,” Mann-Agnew told the crowd Monday, “because the story of the Amistad really focuses on the resiliency and the determination of a group of people. When our ship comes into the port, it’s symbolic of the voyage for freedom.”

Prayers were said in multiple languages, and the West African drumming and dance group Nia Arts, with members from Connecticut and New York, entertained, and members of Castle Church in Norwich sang songs and hymns for the event.

“We should celebrate the courage of those 53 men,” Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said. “The journey to be taken from their homeland that way and be brought here, and to have the courage, guts, whatever you want to call it, to reach for their freedom and to be successful in a land so foreign to them ― that is a story worth telling.”

Guests were invited to tour the ship following the ceremony, but the first tours even before the speeches went to the three firefighters who staffed the fire boat, Capt. Kyle Seitz and firefighters Ryan Flaherty and Alex John, along with Fire Chief Tracy Montoya.

State Sen. Cathy Osten joined them onboard and announced that the proposed 2023-24 state budget contains $1.3 million in capital repairs funding for the Amistad and increases the annual operational support for Discovering Amistad from $263,856 to $515,000.

“It’s so important for us to come here today to make sure that people see the Amistad and actually see what happened here,” Osten said, “that it was a story that a number of people who fought for their own rights. And Connecticut was the perfect place for it to be, because Connecticut supported them, too.”

More than 200 students in schools from the region will tour the ship this week. The Amistad will be open for free public tours from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Tuesday and from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday. School tours will take place Tuesday morning and most of Wednesday.

Global City Norwich and Castle Church in Norwich will host a gathering at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Amistad, followed by a march through downtown to Jubilee Park at Castle Church at the corner of Main Street and Broadway.

“This entire community has been incredible,” Mann-Agnew said. “This work is soul work. This is the work for all of us, because all of us can be change agents, all of us. This is a story for all of us. It’s not just one group of people for the other. This is our history. This is Norwich history. It’s Connecticut history. It’s national, it’s international history. It’s history that we’re proud of.”