The President of Sierra Leone a West African country with nearly two centuries’ worth of historical connections to New Haven visited City Hall to pay the Elm City respect, and to revisit a statue dedicated to his countrymen that he last saw nearly three decades ago.
That foreign dignitary visits and celebration took place Tuesday afternoon on the second floor of City Hall, where Mayor Toni Harp welcomed Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio, his wife Fatima Maada Bio, and a host of other politicians, state officials, and diplomatic representatives from the small West African nation.
President Bio had made the 4,000-plus mile trip from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to New York this week to attend the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. He said he made the side trip up to the Elm City Tuesday to honor New Haven’s two-decade plus sister city relationship with Freetown.
He said he also wanted to make sure to visit New Haven to celebrate the shared history that the Elm City and Sierra Leone have through the story of the Amistad slave revolt, and to thank New Haven for the humanitarian support it helped raise money for during his country’s 2014 Ebola crisis.
“You have always been a haven,” he told the 50 people packed into City Hall’s second-floor rotunda for the visit. “And today is no exception. We have been warmly welcomed, just like SengbePieh and others who came here not knowing anyone at all. You comforted them. You welcome them.”
Again and again he referenced the story of the Amistad revolt, in which 53 enslaved captives from Sierra Leone rose up against their Spanish captors in 1939, were ultimately imprisoned in New Haven, and subsequently led a coalition of local, state, and national abolitionists in a successful bid to win back their freedom in an 1841 U.S. Supreme Court case.
“This is a great story,” he said. “You are a great people. There is so much we can teach the world about what happened here.”
As Bio and his wife sat in leather upholstered seats at the front of a crowd of enamored onlookers, speaker after speaker took the microphone to praise the work her has done in fighting corruption and making public education free during his year-and-a-half as president of Sierra Leone.
“The respective histories of New Haven and Sierra Leone have been interlaced for centuries,” Harp said, “just as the people of each embrace the values we share. Cherished ideals of freedom, justice, and dignity provide a foundation for our respective cultures. They are the basis for the connection we feel.”
“We welcome you, your Excellency, again to New Haven,” New Haven Amistad Committee President Al Marder said. “Again” because Bio was last in New Haven in 1992, when the city installed the statue to SengbePieh, the leader of the 1839 revolt and subsequent freedom struggle, outside City Hall, where it still stands today.
“For the thousands who come to New Haven” every year, Marder said, the statue “informs them of the continual struggle against racism, and for equality and justice.”
Mohamed Berri, the honorary consul of Sierra Leone, praised Harp and Marder for working together while the former was a state Senator to fund the creation of the Connecticut Freedom Trail and the Freedom Schooner Amistad replica.
During the 2014 ebola crisis, he said, Harp led the city in raising $150,000, which led to the purchase and donation of three Ford vans sent to Freetown to be used as ambulances, as well as a Toyota pick-up truck to be used by Freetown’s City Hall.
He praised Althea Norcott, the head of the New Haven-Freetown sister city partnership, for helping raise money in the wake of the 2017 mudslides to build schools and a library and support an orphanage in Freetown.
“Thank you for hosting perhaps the greatest African president who has ever lived,” said SidiqueAbou-Bakarr Wai, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States. Under Bio’s leadership, he said, “We are no longer the Ebola country,” but a country that has become one of the first in the continent to offer cost-free primary and secondary level education.
“I can only imagine the trauma suffered at sea” by the Amistad captives, Bio said. “Taken from their homes and being brought here. But you were generous enough to give them home. You have always believed in freedom. You have always believed in justice, and in the dignity of the human being.”
For that, he said, “I cannot thank you enough.”
After Harp presented Bio with an honorary key to the city, the president and his delegation made their way outside to the Amistad statue, where they took photo after photo.
“The fight for freedom is never finished,” Bio said when asked what the Amistad story means to him today, 180 years after the Mende captives first rose up to resist slavery.