Amistad will be a no-show for Sailfest this weekend

New London — Just days before its anticipated arrival for the city’s annual Sailfest, Amistad America has backed out of a commitment to bring the schooner to City Pier as part of the festival.

“Of course we’re disappointed,” said Barbara Neff, executive director of the Downtown New London Association, which hosts Sailfest.

Neff said Amistad America confirmed the ship would attend Sailfest in May, and that dockside tours and harbor sails on the schooner have been advertised in The Day and elsewhere as part of Sailfest activities.

“They’re in our guide and on our website, and yes, in our advertising,” Neff said.

Hanifa Washington, executive director and chief executive officer of Amistad America, sent emails to Neff and The Day Tuesday afternoon addressing the decision not to bring the ship to the city.

“The Freedom Schooner Amistad will be unable to attend Sailfest this week,” Washington wrote to Neff. “This comes as a tremendous setback for us. There are a variety of acute factors fueling this decision.”

She invited Neff to call her if she wanted to discuss the matter and said the schooner would be open for dockside tours this weekend in New Haven, where it has been for the last couple of weeks.

“I hope the lack of Amistad’s presence on the 12th & 13th don’t subtract from the quality of your tremendous event,” Washington said.

In a separate email to a Day editor, Washington chastised the newspaper’s coverage of the Amistad over the past year and said The Day is partially to blame for the decision not to bring the schooner to New London.

She also stated that newspaper staff has lost the “privilege” of boarding the schooner and interviewing any staff.

The sources of Washington’s displeasure are news stories, columns and editorials raising questions about how $8 million in state funds directed to Amistad America was spent by former president and CEO Greg Belanger. Washington replaced Belanger last year.

Even while it continues to fund the Amistad at about $400,000 a year, the state is in the midst of a long overdue audit of how the financially troubled organization has used taxpayer funds. Amistad America has also lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file federal tax returns.

Despite the state’s considerable and continued investment in the Amistad, it has no ownership interest in the schooner, which was built at Mystic Seaport to help promote the Amistad story. In 1839, 53 Africans who were kidnapped from their homeland were transported from Havana, Cuba, on the Spanish ship La Amistad. The Africans revolted, and the ship eventually ended up in Long Island Sound. Jailed in New Haven, the Africans endured a two-year trial to determine their fate. They won their freedom in 1841.

Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie tells the story of the Amistad and what transpired in Connecticut, and the recreated Amistad built at Mystic Seaport was intended to help to continue to tell that story.

But before Belanger’s departure, he made an agreement with the Ocean Classroom Foundation of Maine to operate the ship, and it has spent some time there, as well as in other locales, where it has been used for filming of movies.

According to Neff, the last time Amistad was in New London was for last summer’s Sailfest. She said the schooner was expected in the city last month, but it backed out of that commitment, too. It also did not attend the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport last month, as scheduled.

The schooner Virginia will be in the city and available for day sails this weekend, Neff said.

In her email to The Day, Washington expressed her displeasure with the newspaper.

“In my opinion speaking to the New London Day at this time is counter productive to the success of the organization of which I serve,” she wrote. “I have no faith and no reason to believe that ‘accuracy’ and ‘objectivity’ are in your publication’s vocabulary ...

“Furthermore, I would kindly ask that your staff not assume they have the right to board the vessel. It is a privilege that your staff has now lost. I can not have my crew subjugated to the malice interrogation of your staff. The crew care for and sail the ship and are not to be quoted in regards to the operations of the organization and its past.”

She ended by saying: “The Freedom Schooner Amistad will not be attending Sailfest this weekend. You can partially thank your publication and its relentless hostility as a factor of that decision.”

a.baldelli@theday.com

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