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A hand-colored woodcut of a 19th century illustration

A hand-colored woodcut of a 19th century illustration of Joseph Cinqué, leader of "Amistad" slave revolt. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

"Make it funny and don't bore me," a Freeport middle school teacher was said to have told students in three of her social studies classes recently.

The subject was slavery, and the students' assignment was to write titles and captions for photographs of enslaved African-Americans, most of which, according to a posting on Facebook, showed slaves working or standing in cotton fields.

"#I HATE THIS," one student caption included in the posting read.

Since then, an apology from the teacher — who has been relieved of teaching duties — has been read at a school board meeting.

There's also been a protest demanding her firing, even as Freeport officials say they are working with the teacher and her union representative to "finalize an agreement." Any terms, as is usual in personnel matters, are unlikely to be released publicly.

Still, the flawed lesson represents an opportunity to look again at slavery.

And Long Island's own history marks a good place to begin, once more.

Let's start with Jupiter Hammon, born in 1711 in what is now Lloyd Harbor.

For decades, Hammon was lauded as the nation's first black published male writer, who, in a famous speech in New York City, once said, "It is our duty to obey our masters."

But, in 2013, researchers discovered an unpublished poem by Hammon, in which he decries chattel slavery.

"Dark and dismal was the Day

When slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by Man

… When shall we hear the joyfull sound

Echo the christian shore

Each humble voice with songs resound

That Slavery is no more."

Then, there's the Amistad, the slave ship on which Joseph Cinqué successfully led a mutiny of Africans kidnapped from Sierra Leone.

A white crew member was allowed to live after promising to pilot the ship east, toward Africa. He did so during the day — but at night, turned the vessel West, toward America.

In August, 1839, the ship ended up near Montauk Point, where Cinque sent a party ashore to barter for supplies.

One man, Banna, knew a few words of English.

“Have rum?” Banna asked the first group of white men the party met, according to an account published by American Heritage Magazine in 1957.

The men didn't, but Banna nonetheless managed to go back to the ship with "a bottle of gin, some potatos, and two fat dogs," the account said.

Eventually, Amistad was captured, setting off a historic fight for the Africans' freedom, which, with the assistance of former President John Quincy Adams, they won.

Decades later, another ship sailed into local history.

That was The Wanderer, a racing schooner retrofitted at a Port Jefferson Station boatyard for the slave trade — some four decades after bringing kidnapped slaves from Africa had been banned in the United States.

One man kidnapped and smuggled back on the ship to Georgia was Cilucangy, who later was renamed Ward Lee.

In 1904, Lee penned a letter:

"Please help me.

"In 1859, I was brought to this country when I was a child. I cannot say just what age I was … and now I am trying to get ready, if God be with me, to go back to Africa … I beg every one who will, please help me …"

Ward never returned home. But his family thrives, including relatives who, generations later, live on Long Island — and who, during one family reunion, visited Port Jefferson Station where The Wanderer was transformed from schooner to slaver.

Finally, let's consider Broteer Furro, who later received the name Venture Smith.

He was enslaved on Fishers Island for 13 years.

In a narrative, Smith relates what happened after he refused an order from his owner's son.

"He … broke out into a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head … [but] I defended myself … or likewise he would have murdered me.

… He immediately called some people … and ordered them to take his hair rope and come and bind me with it.

… He took me to a gallows made for the purpose of hanging cattle and suspended me from it …

I was released and went back to work after hanging on the gallows for about an hour."

Smith is well known in Connecticut, and on Fishers Island.

Eventually, Smith bought his own freedom — and in later years, that of his wife, and children.

Hammon, Cinqué, Ward and Smith are but a sample of local lessons to be learned about slavery.

Nothing funny, or boring, here.


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