by Shannon Crowner
Editor’s Note: Below, we are pleased to share University of San Francisco Museum Studies graduate student Shannon Crowners’s latest post about an important moment in American history from her internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Click here to read the post in its original format.
“Then began one of the most romantic and glorious episodes in United States history. The Negroes, charged with murder and mutiny, were thrown in jail where they stayed a year and a half.” -W. E. B. Du Bois, The Saga of L’Amistad
In February 1839, a large group of Africans were abducted from Sierra Leone and transported to Havana, Cuba to be sold into slavery. The captives had to be smuggled into Cuba because Spain, England, and the United States had already abolished the slave trade. In June 1839, Spanish planters, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought fifty-three captives and set sail towards Puerto Principe aboard La Amistad.
On July 1, a few days after La Amistad set sail, one of the most successful slave rebellions in history would take place. The captured Africans, led by Joseph Cinque, freed themselves from their shackles and killed the ship’s captain and cook. The captives spared Ruiz and Montes lives ordering them to sail back to Africa. The planters led the Africans to believe that they were returning to Africa, but instead the ship arrived in New York on August 25.
Ruiz and Montes were set free, while the Africans were taken to Connecticut to await their trial for murder. The Amistad case attracted national attention and there were strong arguments on both sides of the trial. Ruiz and Montes argued the Africans were slaves in Cuba, therefore legal property. Abolitionists argued the captives had been unlawfully enslaved and should be set free.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court in May of 1840. Even though the Supreme Court majority was Southerners, they ruled in favor of the Africans. The final decision concluded that since the slave trade was abolished, the Africans were illegally enslaved and that the murders were acts of self defense. The Amistad Committee raised private funds and on November 17, 1841, thirty-five Africans left New York to return to Sierra Leone.
Talladega College, a small HBCU, in Alabama commissioned prominent African American artist Hale Woodruff to paint a series of murals for its newly built Savery Library in 1938. Woodruff painted six murals portraying significant events in the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom. On Nov. 7, 2014 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture presented “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” an exhibition of murals and other significant works by the artist. The exhibition was available in the NMAAHC Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was the first time the murals had been exhibited in the Washington metro area.