Standing on a floating dock in New London by a replica of the slave ship Amistad, a white-haired community activist named Sara Chaney only needed 29 words Friday to contemporize the history of slavery.
“My grandmother was born to freed slaves. She was born seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Chaney, her posture slightly stooped, her words deliberate. “She died here in New London in 1968. She was a wonderful woman.”
Chaney came with a longer speech. The occasion was a ceremonial signing of a bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Connecticut, a state whose tardiness in abolishing slavery played a role in the Amistad mutiny.
“I had a whole speech,” Chaney said. “But it isn’t necessary, because we all know why we’re here. And we all know that we have to continue on.”
Gov. Ned Lamont signed copies of the bill while surrounded by members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and others who advocated for the recognition of Juneteenth, the end of slavery in America. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that residents of Texas learned that slavery had been abolished.
Lamont invoked philosopher George Santayana’s admonition that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
“It reminds me of those that want to airbrush our history,” Lamont said. “It’s dangerous if you’re not willing to learn from our past. And I think that’s what Juneteenth is all about.”
Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, one of the bill’s sponsors, seized on a visit by Amistad to make New London the host of the Juneteenth bill signing.
“This is an amazing thing, to have it here in New London,” Nolan said. “I’m lost for words.”
Amistad is visiting New London in recognition of the small part New London played in resolving a mutiny by kidnapped Africans who were being delivered as slaves in Cuba.
In 1839, after the importation of slaves had been abolished in the U.S. and much of North and South America, a human cargo of 53 citizens of Sierra Leone killed the captain and cook of the Amistad and insisted they be brought home.
Instead, the surviving crew sailed north, where the ship was intercepted by a U.S. government brig, Washington, off the eastern end of Long Island and towed to New London. The port may have been chosen because slavery still was technically legal in Connecticut, but not New York.
A Hartford judge dismissed murder charges against the Africans, and another proceeding ruled against the claims of Spain that the ship and passengers were its property. Fearing an international crisis, the U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case became a rallying point for abolitionists, who hired a former Connecticut governor Roger Sherman Baldwin and a former president John Quincy Adams to successfully argue on behalf of the Amistad passengers.
A 129-foot replica built at Mystic Seaport is based in New Haven but travels on educational missions. Below decks, the ship is outfitted with modern comforts, not the slave bunks used to transport Africans around Cuba.
Juneteenth is a celebration as well as a remembrance. Once the speeches and signing ceremony was over, Lamont and the lawmakers boarded the vessel, questioning the crew about its features. The mood turned festive.
Lamont startled observers by climbing the lower rungs of ladder rigging.
By then, Sara Chaney was long gone. She had watched the governor sign a copy of the bill then excused herself without accepting a commemorative copy, making her way through the crowd.
Someone called out. A blue folder with the bill was placed in her hands before she reached the end of the gently rocking floating dock.