- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

With all the talk about slavery reparations, the Mideast situation and the war on terror, I planned to visit my favorite president, Thomas Jefferson, for a one-on-one chat about freedom and democracy. Instead, I ended up yesterday morning at the Amistad, the renegade schooner that is docked in Southwest Washington as part of its educational trek along the East Coast. I knew I'd catch a few school children there and maybe hang around as they got a glimpse of living, breathing history. What I ran into was sheer delight.

By the busloads, children from schools with names like Benjamin Banneker, Lucy Ellen Moten and Mary Church Terrell listened attentively as crew members explained the history of the Amistad before boarding the vessel. Some of the older ones fidgeted as they imagined free-born Africans chained to one another like cattle and forced to cram into quarters half the size of their school's restroom.

Children, as we know, have short attention spans and often replace what's really and truly important with flights of fancy and instant gratification. So it is important that we constantly constantly remind them of things like the Amistad Incident, a frightening time in history when the lies of a few Cubans almost overshadowed two of America's most virtuous pillars freedom and democracy. Fortunately, D.C.-area youngsters, will participate in an essay and poster contest sponsored by the D.C. Lottery, which at least means some sort of follow-up. But there is much more we can and must do to make sure that, while the madness of terrorism and human-rights and civil-rights violations right now is in far-off lands, we must do all we can to ensure that freedom and democracy continue to guide our hands.

Visiting and learning about the Amistad is one way. The original schooner, of course, is long gone, so the one docked in Washington is a recreation. Nonetheless, before I launch into my discourse, I beg you to visit her (www.amistadamerica.org).

Now, let us begin our journey, because, even if you've read about the Amistad Incident, which has been largely dismissed in American history books and eclipsed by latter-day Supreme Court rulings, or you saw Hollywood's version, you ain't seen nothing until you see and feel the almost-real Amistad.

For starters, we continue to mistakenly call the Amistad a slave ship. It was not a slave ship. The long, low, black schooner was a cargo vessel, and it carried goods for everyday life, and it sometimes carried important people, too, including lords and ladies. Its home port was Cuba, so much of its cargo was often sugar cane as well. As for the 1839 slave rebellion, well, there indeed was a rebellion, but the captured Africans, including small children, were not slaves. Yet, the Mendi who were born free in what we now call Sierra Leone were shackled and carted westward and told what horrible fates lay ahead. As you might imagine, the suffering and lack of food and water, left many of their unfortunate souls dumped along the Middle Passage, so they really and truly didn't have to be warned at all.

What's interesting, though, is that, while the Spielberg film made much ado about the roles the adults played in bringing freedom to the Mendi, little has been said about the children's role. One, a 12-year-old boy named Kali, accomplished something most U.S. immigrant children can't do. In just a few months, Kali was able to read and write English. He was so literate, in fact, that it was he who wrote to John Quincy Adams for help, and Kali was courteous enough as well to write him a thank-you letter in May 1841 following their two-year ordeal.

Yesterday, when a crew member asked the youngsters from Terrell school why they thought Kali had written that second letter, one boy didn't hesitate to speak up. "Because they're free," he said. The Terrell school children were also taken aback to learn that another young captive, 8-year-old Margru, had gone on to attend Oberlin College, the same college as their school's namesake. Margru later returned to Sierra Leone, where she worked and taught alongside the Christian missionaries who had helped educate her while imprisoned in America.

The captain of the Amistad, Bill Pinkney, had more than a few insightful words for what I call the Delightful Dozen. I call them that because, as an alum of Moten I am particularly proud. But what's truly special is that, with the guiding hands of their teacher, Heather Ampofo-Anti, these 12 girls, who are sixth-graders, made the most remarkable quilt for the Amistad crew. So, when Capt. Pinkney heard yesterday that they had yet to visit the ship, he took special time out to personally thank them. He told them about his growing up on the rough-and-tumble streets of the South Side of Chicago, and about his dream to sail around the world. "Knowledge," the Delightful Dozen were told, "will help you change your situation." The captain also gave the girls a briefing about quilts and how the various messages and scenes "sewn into quilts were used as sign posts, signals, warnings and welcomes" on the Underground Railroad or, as the title of the popular book says, were part of the road map to freedom that was "Hidden in Plain Sight."

Indeed, the road to freedom is not always an easy one, but it's always worth the travails and the travel.

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