Former Amistad crewman, others want schooner back on right course

Mystic - A member of the inaugural crew of the schooner Amistad said Friday that he and other former crewmates are trying to become members of the Amistad America board of directors so they can bring the ship back from Maine, homeport it in New London and return it to its original mission of telling the story of African captives freed in 1839.

"I've seen the effect this ship has had on the lives of people," said J. Dennis Burroughs, a filmmaker and Caribbean charter boat captain. "I want to see that happen again."

The 58-year-old Burroughs of Weehawken, N.J., said the other crew members are now involved in law, finance and corporate work and are looking for an attorney with experience in maritime and nonprofit law to assist them pro bono.

They may not need the help, though, as state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who has been pressing the state Department of Economic and Community Development to detail how Amistad America has spent $8 million in state taxpayer money, said Friday that DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith is trying to set up a meeting between her agency, Burroughs' group and the remaining few board members of Amistad America.

"The idea is to have them all in the same room and discuss the future of the Amistad," she said.

Urban, who met with Burroughs and Smith in separate meetings at the Capitol Thursday, said she is thrilled to see Burroughs and his group, which is calling itself SOS Amistad, step forward.

"These are people out there who love the Amistad and want to see it doing what it is supposed to be doing," she said.

She said she told Burroughs to put together a detailed plan of what his group wants to do.

Burroughs, who served two years aboard Amistad beginning in 2000 and became its education officer before returning in 2005 for its voyage to Bermuda, said he has watched the ship and its mission deteriorate under the direction of current Executive Director Greg Belanger.

He said Belanger and what's left of the Amistad board has never focused on raising money, something he said he and his group would do using their many contacts.

He said he would like to spend some time regaining the ship's financial stability and then turning it over to someone who can keep it on the right path.

"We're interested in seizing the vessel," he said bluntly.

As for Belanger's plans to use the ship to film a 10-part NBC miniseries about the pirate Blackbeard starring John Malcovich later this year, Burroughs said he is worried about who is responsible for the ship if something happens on the journey to Puerto Rico.

"We're not going to let it go to Puerto Rico. John Malcovich will have to find another ship," he said.

Burroughs said he and his former crew members are ready at a moment's notice to sail the ship back to New London if needed.

He said basing the Amistad in New London, where there is the Amistad Pier, would tie in with the proposed Coast Guard Museum on the waterfront. He said it could then travel between New London and Mystic and make an annual trip along the East Coast, where it would have partners in each city.

With the country now focused on immigration issues, he said now would be a good time for Amistad to re-emerge with its story. He said New Haven, which was once the ship's homeport, is not the right place for it.

The state's two auditors of public accounts are preparing to look into how Amistad America has spent it funding after Urban said documents provided by DECD fail to do that. DECD plans to make payments totaling $359,000 a year to Amistad America over the next two years.

Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three years. It is now appealing that ruling.

The Amistad is now in Maine, where it is being repaired and operated by the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation. It is slated to visit New London early next month.

Belanger, the executive director of Amistad America who is also the director of Ocean Classroom Foundation, has said Amistad America has spent the state's money wisely. Belanger is set to step down as Amistad America's executive director on July 1.

The schooner, which was built at Mystic Seaport and launched in 2000, hasn't sailed to ports to tell the Amistad story for the last few years. It is no longer based in New Haven, has no office and has had an inactive website and no phone. Amistad America Director of Education and Community Outreach Hanifa Washington said Friday that the programming wing of Amistad America, called Amistad Voyages, is building a website at www.amistadvoyages.org that is set to launch July 1. She said the organization's phone number will be on the site.

Belanger said Amistad America is working on three partnerships but has not said how much money they could generate for the financially struggling organization.

These include the NBC filming, Ocean Classroom and Love146, a New Haven-based nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking, which Belanger said would expand the ship's message.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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