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    State Rep. Diana Urban and Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek Jr. called for the return of the Amistad to Mystic on Wednesday. | ( Michael Souza / The Westerly Sun )

    Officials call for Amistad’s return

    MYSTIC ― The message from State Rep. Urban (D-North Stonington) was loud and clear. Standing before the river in Mystic River Park, she and other officials demanded the schooner Amistad return to Connecticut as soon as possible and resume its educational mission.

    Last weekend Mystic was home to the Connecticut Schooner Festival. With the schooner Mary E. waiting for the drawbridge to open in the background, Urban, State Sen. Andrew Maynard and Stonington First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. plead their case late Wednesday morning, Sept. 11.

    According to Urban, the ship’s mission is “to offer innovative and validated diversity education for young people in the state of Connecticut, to reduce racial isolation, to offer new avenues for improved racial and ethnic harmony and understanding. The Amistad cannot do that if it’s down in Puerto Rico dressed up as a pirate ship in the middle of hurricane season,” she said.

    She questioned the insurance arrangement on the ship as well: “If you go through the minutes of the (board of directors) meetings, it’s not clear who is insuring that boat, and what constitutes full repayment to the state of Connecticut,” she said. “It is in no way doing its mission.”

    She also believes that the board has no plan for a lasting endowment and donations have been meager, a problem that dates back to 2006. Urban claims that any money in the endowment was used to send the vessel to Sierra Leone in 2007. “Not only are we saying it needs to do its mission but it needs to have fiscal accountability to the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut,” she said. “We look at their goals and their plans and they do not line up with sending it to Puerto Rico dressed up as a pirate ship for a “Crossbones” television show.”

    Urban also stated that funding for the vessel comes from the state, with the exception of $250,000 the ship will earn for participating in the television series.

    “I am calling for the dissolution of the board of directors of the Amistad. It’s time, somebody needs to do this,” she said. However, the state has no authority to impose board changes on private organizations.

    Her inquiry into the matter with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development resulted in a 160-word letter, something Urban found unacceptable and “insulting.”

    Urban then called their continued misuse of funds as a waste of Connecticut taxpayers’ money and said a board with fiscal experience needs to be in place.

    Maynard agreed. “We would be remiss if we didn’t say there’s a problem,” he said.” “We have the fiduciary responsibility.”

    Haberek explained that the ship’s absence during the Connecticut Schooner Festival was noticeable. “We have hundreds, thousands of tourists here every year looking at all of the different cultural attractions. It’s one of our key attractions in Mystic. It would be wonderful to have it here, it would be a nice addition to (the schooner festival). It’s demoralizing that it’s not here,” he said.

    A national symbol of the fight against slavery and made famous by the 1997 Steven Spielberg film of the same name, the Amistad is a state-funded replica of the ship that was overtaken by its African captives who were being brought to Cuba in 1839. They initially landed on Long Island but were captured and jailed in New Haven. The captives eventually won their freedom in a landmark case that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Since its construction in Mystic in 2000, the ship’s mission has been to educate the public about the original Amistad and the plight of those on board. It has sailed on the country’s Atlantic coast, to Cuba and as far as western Africa telling its story, all with the help of millions of dollars from the state of Connecticut.

    The ship is operated by Amistad America Inc., an internationally recognized nonprofit educational organization based in New Haven.

    Earlier this summer it was revealed that the organization had lost their nonprofit status for failing to file three years of tax returns and that they have been unable to account for nearly $9 million dollars in state money they have received.

    The Freedom Schooner Amistad is Connecticut’s official State Flagship and Tall Ship ambassador.

    Last November, Amistad America partnered with the sailing school, Ocean Classroom Foundation of Damariscotta, Maine. The foundation runs and maintains several other schooners.



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