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A job for Rep. Ernest Hewett

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published August 24. 2014 4:00AM

I am not the first to congratulate Attorney General George Jepsen for doing the right thing last week in starting to salvage the Amistad and its history-telling mission. But I am glad to join the chorus of compliments.

In fact, the attorney general rather deftly moved in and took back for the state some stewardship of the schooner in which so many millions have been invested over the years.

We in what Gov. Dannel Malloy likes to call the cheap seats, criticizing from afar, thought it would never happen.

Really, it was a long year waiting for the state to finally close the money spigot to a defunct organization awash in debt and do something to reclaim the ship the state built to tell of Connecticut's important role in emancipation.

Indeed, here we are at the 175th anniversary of the story, in which the Amistad captives were originally brought ashore in New London, before the start of the country's first civil rights case, featuring former president John Quincy Adams for the defense.

Cheers for the attorney general for his bloodless coup, securing in Superior Court a receivership that will give everyone time to build a new organization that will safeguard the ship and keep telling the story.

The justification for having a replica of the Amistad as an historical marker is as valid today as it was when the state commissioned Mystic Seaport to build it more than 15 years ago.

Not only has it been a cultural and history-teaching tool, a seagoing ambassador, the ship is popular as a tourist attraction. People in Mystic will tell you it was once one of the first things visitors to town asked about, after the birthplace of Julia Roberts film career, at Mystic Pizza.

That leads me to another worry I heard around here last week.

In announcing the receivership, state officials made special note of New Haven's role as a "stakeholder" in the Amistad.

Indeed, New Haven was designated the ship's homeport from the time it was built. There is some justification for this from the story, since that's where the trial of the Amistad captives took place.

More likely, though, the New Haven homeport was a political compromise when the funding for the ship first went through the General Assembly, the booty spread out geographically. Mystic got to build it, while New Haven got to homeport it.

Some of that geographic vote counting might be at play again, as the Amistad is refloated during a tight election year in which New Haven voters will play a big role. Though, honestly, no public officials from New Haven have expressed the slightest interest in the ship during the last year.

Eastern Connecticut should have a strong voice in what happens next. Certainly Mystic Seaport is the most appropriate organization to secure the ship, with the resources to maintain and operate it and excellent facilities to showcase it for the public, a venue with tens of thousands of visitors a year.

It would be great, too, if the ship could also spend time in New London, where the original Amistad first landed. It's unfortunate the New London Maritime Society sided last year with the Amistad pirates, officially partnering with the defunct organization, even as it was publicly called out, losing its federal nonprofit status.

Still, in the future it would be heartening to see the replica Amistad in a historic setting, near the society's Custom House, where the captives were first brought ashore.

It is a much more appropriate setting than the Amistad pier in New Haven, hard along Interstate 95 in an industrial setting, where few visitors venture. In New London, Amistad could join the Coast Guard Eagle as fine maritime tourism enhancements for the new National Coast Guard Museum, part of a visitor-friendly waterfront with restaurants, shops, parking, transportation and amusements all close at hand.

I nominate state Rep. Ernest Hewett of New London, a member of the General Assembly's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, to take charge of efforts to make sure that the state's black community is well represented in a revived Amistad organization and that the merits of New London and Mystic as future venues for the ship are well considered.

May the best and most appropriate port win.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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