Former Amistad Captive to Share Her Story at New Haven Museum
Tammy Denease portraying Sarah Margu
Photo courtesy of Old State House
New Haven, Conn. (February 8, 2024) – Sarah Margu was just nine years old when she was sold into slavery, marched 80 miles to the West African coast, held in the notorious Dunbomo slave pens, and then trafficked to Cuba. In 1839, Margu was one of four children among the 53 captives aboard the schooner La Amistad, headed toward a life of slavery until they led a rebellion to protect their freedom. Following the revolt, and seizure of the Amistad, the captives were imprisoned in New Haven. As portrayed by the Executive Artistic Director of Hidden Women Stage Company Tammy Denease, Margu will share her story at the New Haven Museum on Saturday, March 9, 2024, at 3 p.m. This free NH250 event will also stream on FB Live. Register here.
On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amistad captives had been illegally enslaved and had thus exercised a natural right to defend their freedom. Margu’s first-person presentation, “Sarah Margu: A Child of the Amistad,” will share the moving details of her journey, her life in the Northeast, and what is today, Sierra Leone, and how she became the first African to graduate college in the United States. Margu will discuss how she became a deeply conflicted woman rooted in two different cultures, on two different continents.
After gaining her freedom through the landmark legal victory in 1841, Margu lived in Farmington, Connecticut, and was educated by abolitionists. She was one of the 35 Amistad survivors who returned to their homeland. In 1846, 14-year-old Margu returned to the United States, and later graduated from Oberlin College, the first U.S. college to admit Black students.
Noting that many people are aware of the legal aspects of the Amistad saga, Denease says that she will share the human side of the story. “After my performances people have a different outlook and appreciation for the Amistad captives as being human, and not just cargo.”
Denease was born in Columbus, Mississippi, where she spent countless hours with her great-grandmother, a former enslaved person, and her grandmother. Both women were centenarians and noted storytellers. Denease’s upbringing instilled in her a passion for history. As a storyteller in her own right, she brings history to life, taking viewers back in time to better understand the past, and how it led to the present. Denease specializes in strengthening public appreciation for noteworthy black women, holding her enlightening presentations at museums, schools, and historical sites across New England. As outreach director of the Connecticut Freedom Trail
she teaches children colonial history, health, medicine, and slavery and Native-American history.
Visitors may also view the museum’s updated Amistad exhibition. The revitalized exhibition centers the experiences of the captives—their resistance to enslavement and their collective action to determine their own lives. The exhibition also focuses on New Haven as the site of their incarceration, and abolitionist organizing throughout the legal process, leading to the landmark Supreme Court decision. On display are historic and contemporary artistic representations of Amistad that convey the power of the arts to raise awareness and shape collective memory.
The museum’s distinguished Amistad collection includes Nathaniel Jocelyn’s renowned portrait of Sengbe Pieh, leader of the revolt (referred to as Cinqué by enslavers and in court records), a painting of the schooner La Amistad from 1839, a letter from Kale, one of the children of the Amistad, a letter from John Quincy Adams, who argued successfully on behalf of the Amistad prisoners before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Hale Woodruff’s 1939 original studies for the Amistad murals at Talladega College. New items from the museum’s collection will be displayed when the exhibition opens.