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Progressive journey

The good ship Amistad arrives with a message, especially for children, about human harmony in all its colors.

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Shannon Rifenburg, 13, a student in the Oasis Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, takes it all in on the Amistad at the Pier on Monday.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- A sailor for racial peace had this to say Tuesday:

"Stop fighting," implored Mukanku Mpoyi Jr. "Care for each other. Don't (criticize) somebody because of their color. We are the same people."

Mpoyi, 20, is a crew member aboard the Amistad, a replica schooner that cruises from port to port carrying a message of reconciliation. The 85-foot vessel, docked this week at the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg, also is a floating history lesson about slavery and civil rights.

School groups and the public are touring the ship, which also is available for morning and evening cruises.

The vessel's captain and crew speak about the meaning of an event historians once marginalized as an "incident." In it, 53 kidnapped Africans overthrew their captors aboard a ship called La Amistad during an 1839 sea journey around Cuba.

"Slavery still happens today. Sweat shops. Migrant workers," said William Pinkney, one of the modern Amistad's captains.

Pinkney, 67, is a story in himself. He is the first African-American to circumnavigate the globe alone, using the dangerous Cape Horn route.

He has been part of the Amistad even before its launching in 2000.

"I've been with it since it was logs," said Pinkney, referring to the oak, pine and fir used to build the ship.

Amistad America, the organization that owns the vessel, wants the ship to be a catalyst for racial harmony, especially among youngsters.

"You are our future," Mpoyi told scores of middle and high school students touring the ship Tuesday.

Mpoyi, born in Jamaica and reared in Zaire, took a semester away from college to help the crew.

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
The schooner is available for tours and cruises through Sunday. The 85-foot Amistad also serves as a floating history lesson about slavery and civil rights.

Groups of 40 or 50 students formed a circle inside the Pier. Mpoyi strode inside the circle, speaking passionately and drawing out the shy middle schoolers.

First he had all of them join hands.

Then he went a step further.

"I don't care if you like 'em or not. I want you to turn to the person next to you and tell them I love you," Mpoyi said.

Giggling and rolling their eyes, most of the youngsters complied.

Mpoyi ended his sessions by yelling: "Amistad!" The children shouted back: "Freedom!"

Hollywood celebrated La Amistad's story in a 1997 Stephen Spielberg film. The ship and its passengers became symbols of human rights long before that.

The kidnapped Africans, 49 men and four children, had been transported across the Atlantic aboard the Tecora, a genuine slave ship.

They were transferred to La Amistad for a short trip in Cuban waters. Amistad America officials take care to say the second ship was not a slave ship, but a commercial cargo carrier.

The Africans, led by a 25-year-old rice farmer named Sengbe Pieh, rose up and took over the ship, sailing it up the Gulf Stream.

But a U.S. naval ship captured the vessel and its passengers. The Africans were charged with murder and piracy.

John Quincy Adams, who had been America's sixth president, defended them in a case that went before the Supreme Court. It resulted in the Africans' being repatriated to their native Sierra Leone, then called Mendi.

It was the first human rights case to result in a victory for Africans, Amistad America officials say.

It also led to the formation of the American Missionary Association. The organization helped establish more than 200 churches and more than 500 schools, including Fisk University, Hampton Institute and the Howard University divinity school, according to Amistad America.

The Amistad will be here through Sunday and is scheduled to return in December.

If you go

WHAT: The Amistad freedom schooner

WHERE: The Pier, downtown St. Petersburg

WHEN: Public tours at 2 to 6 p.m. today; 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prearranged school tours are held in the mornings.

COST: $5 adults, $3 senior citizens and children under 12, free for school groups.

ALSO: Evening harbor cruises cost $25 per person. Breakfast cruises for $35 are Saturday and Sunday. Call toll-free 1-866-264-7823 for reservations. A free community dialogue titled "Freedom vs. Control: How Much Is Too Much?" is from 7 to 9 p.m. today at Florida International Museum, 100 Second St. N.

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