The schooner Amistad, a replica of the historic ship that became famous after a group of enslaved Africans led a successful revolt and won their freedom in the U.S. Supreme Court, will drop anchor at Martha’s Vineyard for Juneteenth weekend.

Organized by the Vineyard Gazette Media Group and sponsored by Vineyard Wind, the History Makers and Toyota, the Amistad’s arrival on Friday, June 16 will kick off a packed, three-day holiday weekend of speakers and events with the theme of Free as the Wind, celebrating escapes from enslavement in America on the high seas.

“There is such relevance to Martha’s Vineyard and the African-American experience, and we’re excited to have the ship come there and connect with that,” said Paula Mann-Agnew, executive director of the organization Discovering Amistad. She described her group as “a story with a boat.”

The story of the Amistad, Ms. Mann-Agnew said, began in Sierra Leone in the early 19th century, where 23-year old Sengbhe Pieh, a rice farmer and the son of a local chief, was kidnapped and taken to work the plantations in Cuba.

“The slave trade was illegal internationally at that point,” Ms. Mann-Agnew explained. In Cuba, in 1839, after being loaded onto a ship with 52 others for transport, Mr. Pieh led a revolt, executing the captain and first mate.

Freedom schooner will be available for tours. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“His old leadership training just kicked in,” she said.

The group commandeered the Amistad and sailed to New Haven, Conn. A protracted legal battle followed, resulting in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that the Africans had the right to rebel against their kidnappers and ordered them freed.

The idea of bringing the replica ship Amistad to Martha’s Vineyard for Juneteenth came from Skip Finley, an author and director of sales and marketing for the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, who said its story is a uniquely inspiring one. The ship last visited the Island more than a decade ago.

“My goal is to find a different way to talk about a bad period in American history...and the best way to do that is to talk about success,” he said.

Mr. Finley has been interested in the Vineyard’s history of people of color since 2012, when he began writing the Gazette’s Oak Bluffs town column. Tired of limiting his coverage to comings and goings, he began to include historical tidbits in his writing. As he expanded his research, he was blown away by the stories he found.

“I was like, holy cow, I had no idea,” he said.

In those stories, Mr. Finley said, he saw a throughline of people seeking freedom on the ocean, part of the rich tapestry of the Island’s maritime history. He highlighted, for example, the story of John Thompson, an escaped slave who found freedom on a whaling ship with a Vineyard captain.

“How much cooler of a story can you get?” he said, noting that up to 40 per cent of whalers were people of color.

Mr. Finley hopes the stories of maritime liberation will be an entry point for younger people to learn about the era’s history. Youth from SailMV and the FUEL program on the Shenandoah will form the Amistad’s welcoming committee.

The story of Juneteenth is itself one of liberation, a holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when freedom was given to enslaved people in Texas, and slavery in the U.S. ended in practice.

Kahina Van Dyke, owner of the historic Inkwell Haven guesthouses, hosted the first Juneteenth celebration on Martha’s Vineyard in 2020 at the Narragansett House.

“It started with 40 people on my porch three years ago,” she said. “It just keeps getting bigger…it’s really nice to watch it grow.”

In 2021, Juneteenth was declared a national holiday, and last year a variety of businesses and organizations on Martha’s Vineyard joined Inkwell Haven in offering a rich three-day weekend of Juneteenth Jubilee events. Ms. Van Dyke said she plans to offer a similar programs of events as last year, including musical acts and lectures at the Tabernacle.

Events organized by the Gazette will include a panel discussion on Saturday, June 17, at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum featuring historian Timothy Walker, editor of Sailing to Freedom, an essay collection about maritime escapes from enslavement. He will be joined by Lee Blake, an expert on New Bedford’s role in the Underground Railroad, and museum historian Bow van Riper for an event sponsored by Cape Cod Five.

Bill Pinkney, the first captain of the Amistad when it was reconstructed by Mystic Seaport back in 2000 and was the first Black man to circumnavigate the world solo, will also come to the Island, sponsored by the History Makers and Toyota.

Tours of the Amistad, which Ms. Mann-Agnew described as a “floating classroom,” will take place throughout the weekend.

Festivities will culminate with the gospel brunch on Monday, June 19, accompanied by music from the Amistad drummers and songs by Athene Wilson.

The Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce will produce a free program guide with a calendar of activities around the Island.

And though the Amistad will depart after the holiday, her story will remain behind.

“We call it the freedom Schooner, because it’s symbolic of their freedom and how they fought for it,” Ms. Mann-Agnew said. “It’s a story that’s still relevant today.”