The Supreme Court Decision
This week, exactly 175 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Africans on board the Amistad were free individuals. Kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves.
The Supreme Court decision in the Amistad case was the beginning of a fundamental conversation about racial justice in this country. The path of that conversation has not been linear; rather, it has seesawed between freedom and oppression. The conversation is still unfinished. The struggle for freedom from oppression continues. Each day’s headlines scream out for a racial justice still denied, as the nation confronts the problems of police bias, voter suppression, mass incarceration, and educational inequity, and as the scourge of slavery persists in the form of human trafficking.
The transatlantic slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but at the time of the Amistad case it was still legal to own slaves who had been brought to the Americas before 1807 or who had been born here to enslaved parents after that date. The critical facts in the Amistad case were that these Africans were kidnapped in their homeland in West Africa (present day Sierra Leone) and brought on board the slave ship Tecora to Havana, Cuba in 1839. This was clearly after the abolition of the slave trade, which made the kidnapping and transport illegal. The Africans staged a successful revolt off the coast of Cuba when they were being trans-shipped on the coastal cargo schooner Amistad from Havana to a plantation in Puerto Principe in western Cuba. They attempted to sail the Amistad back to Africa, but were foiled by the crew of the ship, who would turn the ship around at night. The ship zigzagged up the east coast of the United Stated for weeks, before finally being intercepted by the U.S. Washington off Montauk Point, Long Island, after which the Africans were imprisoned and tried in Connecticut to determine whether they were legal slaves, and therefore the property of the Spaniards who claimed them, or free.
The fact that the Africans had been brought to Havana illegally was obvious from the start of the lower court proceedings in Connecticut. None spoke Spanish. All spoke Mende or another African language. All had African names and knew in detail the features of their homeland, in contradiction to the fake Spanish names listed for them in the fraudulent papers of the Spaniards who claimed to own them. But facts do not ensure justice. In spite of the facts of the case, U. S. President Martin Van Buren and the Spanish government, two of the greatest world powers of the time, were fighting hard in the courts to have the Africans returned to Havana, where they would have faced certain death for their rebellion.
There are many inspiring elements of the Amistad story, but the one which we celebrate today is that on March 9, 1841 the rule of law in the United States prevailed over the naked exercise of oppressive power.
The Supreme Court affirmed for the first time that individuals have the right to justice under law regardless of color. Or in today’s language, that Black Lives Matter.
The Supreme Court reversed itself 16 years later in the Dred Scott case, which claimed that black people could not be U. S. citizens, and therefore could not find justice in the court system. Dred Scott was then reversed by the 14th Amendment in 1868, as part of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, which included former slaves recently freed. The power of 14th Amendment was in turn diminished in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of separate but equal. Separate but equal remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its repudiation in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
In parallel with this history, the 15th Amendment established the right to vote for black males, but was undone after the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s through a campaign of murderous intimidation, which persisted through the Jim Crow era before it was finally ended by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made state voter suppression laws illegal under federal law, and which created a mechanism for Federal review of any changes in the voting laws in states with a history of voter suppression. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is now under attack in new forms of voter suppression at the state level and by the Supreme Court’s recent weakening of the Act’s provisions for Federal review.
This saga of advance and retreat on racial justice that began with the Amistad Supreme Court decision underscores this essential truth about democracy: it is not a noun; it is a verb. It is a never ending process. It is not something you have; it is something you make every day.
The Heart of the Larger American Freedom Narrative
The Amistad story is the heart of a larger American freedom narrative of self-emancipation and the confronting of oppressive power structures; a story that resonates equally with groups as different as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons and Daughters of Black Panthers. It is inspiring as a moment of triumph for freedom, as a successful partnership among blacks and whites in social justice, and as a model of individual and collective leadership. It speaks not only to the still unresolved issue of race in America, but also the persistence of slavery/human trafficking in our time, and the larger meaning of citizenship and civic action for people of all races.
It is fundamentally a story of human agency, first by the Africans themselves, second by their black and white abolitionist allies, and also by the thousands of spectators who sympathized with the Africans against President Van Buren and the Spanish.
On the slave ships, there were many desperate efforts to rebel that failed. The Amistad Rebellion succeeded in part because the Amistad was configured more as a cargo ship, with less provision for transporting the captives securely. But the Amistad Africans also prevailed because they had a pre-existing leadership structure in place from the secret Poro Societies of their homeland, which had not yet been broken by the slave system. From marks on their bodies they knew who their leaders were, and those leaders, Sengbe in particular, acted effectively to mobilize them as a fighting force to overwhelm their captors.
Without the self-emancipation of the Africans on board the Amistad, there would be no Amistad story. But, without the help of their black and white abolitionist allies, who raised the funds for their defense and found the attorneys to represent them, the story would have had a different ending.
The Amistad Africans had no access to American power structures. The role of the abolitionists was similar to modern day resistance to human trafficking, which focuses on breaking the power structures that enable it.
Power structures cannot be broken simply by self-emancipation. The abolitionists were willing to confront the oppressive power structures of their time, at great risk to themselves and their property. Some of the Amistad Committee, formed to defend the Africans, were also conductors on the Underground Railroad, and would have attempted to free the Africans from prison had the verdict gone against them.
This was not the majority opinion in the North at the time. In fact, the abolitionists were viewed by most as a dangerous group of extremists who threatened to tear the country apart by a too-hasty abolition of slavery. So it is remarkable that the larger public came to sympathize with the Amistad Africans as well. They came by the hundreds to watch the trials, to visit the Africans in the New Haven jail, and to watch them exercise daily on the New Haven Green with acts of acrobatics that are part of the Poro Society culture. Some of the general public brought food and money and tobacco to the Africans in the New Haven jail. One of them would write to the abolitionist Lewis Tappan to say: “I’m no abolitionist, but I support the Amistad Africans.” The Amistad Rebellion and the way it was covered by the press created a powerful wave of public sentiment in favor of the Africans that probably influenced the judges, both at the local level with District Court Judge Judson, who had previously been the prosecutor and persecutor of Prudence Crandall for her efforts to found a school for the education of young black women, and at the Supreme Court, a majority of whom were slaveholders. This wave of public sentiment is striking in a time when racism in the north was off the charts and when slavery was still legal in Connecticut.
Connecticut’s Larger Role in the History of Race in America
Pulling at the threads of the contradictions in the Amistad story leads to the whole twisted fabric of Connecticut’s history of slavery and racism, or more simply, Connecticut’s history.
Part of what made the plight of the Amistad Africans more acceptable to many Northerners, including Judge Judson, was that they wanted to go back to Africa. Many Northerners, like Judson, were Colonizationists: they felt that all blacks, free and enslaved, should be sent back to Africa; that it was unacceptable for whites and blacks to live together in America. This was probably the majority view in Connecticut at the time of the Amistad case.
Another factor was that North vs. South sectional antipathy was rampant. At least some of the public sentiment was more sectionalist than sympathetic. Many Northerners hated Martin Van Buren and how he was in the pocket of the Southern slaveholders … the operative word in that sentence being “Southern” not “slaveholders.”
The motives of some of the players in the Amistad story were less than heroic, as is the larger context of which it is part. While Connecticut was not involved in the transatlantic slave trade to the same extent as the Rhode Island shippers, Connecticut had deep trade relationships with the plantation owners of the West Indies and the South, much deeper than the other New England states. This included the supply of raw materials to both, and the purchase of molasses from the West Indies plantations, and cotton from the southern plantations. Our nickname, the Nutmeg State, reveals our history of engagement with the West Indies slave economy. This engagement made us conflicted about slavery, and frequently led us to be the essential compromisers who enabled the nation to hold itself together with increasing difficulty in the interplay of financial interest, high principal, and sectionalism that drove the nation’s politics for its first century, as it debated the scope of slavery and deferred its abolition.
Connecticut’s history is a story of good and bad angels: of a deep concern for the Union intermingled with rank greed; of a moral courage to confront the evil of slavery driven by a deep faith bordering on extremism; of sectionalism masquerading as racism; of racism masquerading as sectionalism; of an elite equally disdainful of their white and black inferiors, and therefore willing to treat each equally as lesser forms of citizens; and of a populist strain that pushed against the elites to broaden meaningful participation in civic life, but only for white men. It is a story of nuance, of “on the one hand…” that teaches its students to see the world and themselves from multiple perspectives, to understand that there is not one history, one truth. It reveals the roots of many of today’s events, with a depth of understanding that can inspire action.
Connecticut helped the nation postpone its ultimate reckoning with slavery. In so doing, it built some of the structures of institutional racism whose fallout we are still experiencing today, but also built part of the legal foundation for the extension of the franchise and full civic participation first to all white men, then to black men, then to women, and now to gays and lesbians. Connecticut has had a huge role in defining what it means to be a citizen, so it is fitting that the Amistad story be used to inspire civic engagement through Discovering Amistad, the new organization which will operate the Amistad replica vessel, using it as a platform to help Connecticut youth and adults to discover the Amistad story, and to find in it the inspiration to make a freer and more just world.
Kip Bergstrom will soon be leaving his position as the Amistad Project Manager at the Connecticut Office of Policy Management, where he helped create and launch a new non-profit organization, Discovering Amistad. Discovering Amistad will operate the Amistad replica vessel and develop educational programming to enable youth and adults in Connecticut and beyond to discover in the Amistad story the inspiration to take action today to make a freer and more just world.