Amistad Research Center
Amistad Research Center holds a combined total of fifteen million documents related to the history of African Americans, making it the largest repository of its kind in the United States. The library began with the support of the American Missionary Association, an organization that worked throughout the South and attempted to help former slaves during the era of Reconstruction. The manuscripts and other materials of the AMA form the cornerstone of the research collection. These 19th century materials reveal a great deal about the history of former slaves throughout the South and are essential genealogical resources for many African American family historians. The Center's holdings have grown dramatically since the 1980s, and now include over 800 separate collections that together represent hundreds of thousands of documents and photographs related to the history of the Jim Crow Era, early 20th century, and modern civil rights movement. The center has a small gallery space that includes rotating exhibits drawn from their collections.
Backstory and Context
Named in honor of the men and women who led the famous Amistad Uprising of 1839, the research center dates back to 1966 when the historical collections of the AMA were housed at Fisk University. The collection later relocated to Dillard University before acquiring a space in the United States Mint building in New Orleans. The organization has been located at Tulane since 1987.
The Amistad revolt, is summarized by the National Archives:
In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights. President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Claims to the Africans by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants' case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.1
The Amistad Research Center is housed in Tilton Memorial Hall, named in honor of New Orleans businessman and Tulane supporter Frederick W. Tilton. Although he was originally from the North, Tilton had lived in the South since the 1840s and supported the Confederacy. In fact, he traveled to England on behalf of Jefferson Davis in hopes of purchasing arms to help Confederate armies. After the war, Tilton rebuilt his business empire as a leading importer of iron and contributed much of his fortune to Tulane and other educational and cultural institutions throughout New Orleans.
Finkelman, Paul. The Georgia Historical Quarterly 72, no. 1 (1988): 155-57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40581784.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Leon F. Litwack, and Darlene Clark Hine. The Harvard Guide to African-American History. Vol. 12. Harvard University Press, 2001.
"History of the Center ," Amistad Research Center website, accessed July 23, 2016, http://www.amistadresearchcenter.org/missionhistory
Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone. University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400- 1800. Cambridge University Press, 1998.