PORTLAND (AP) – The controversy over whether the man recognized as Portland’s founder owned a slave is resurfacing two weeks before a replica of the slave schooner Amistad visits Portland Harbor.

City officials have decided Amistad will berth at the city-owned Maine State Pier during its May 7-14 visit. The city previously had said it might use the nearby Portland Yacht Services facilities to host the ship because the Maine State Pier was undergoing repairs.

The city’s decision has angered descendants of Portland founder George Cleeve. They say a 7-foot bronze statue of Cleeve at Portland Yacht Services is being unfairly shunned because of “hearsay” that Cleeve owned a slave.

“I feel badly that a fine invitation has turned out to be a slap in the face,” said Alice Branson, chair of the George Cleeve Association. “It (the statue) seems to be a sore subject for a very small number of people who apparently have held a bit of a misconception for many years and can’t let go of that.”

City officials said Cleeve’s statue was not a primary reason for moving the ship to the Maine State Pier, which was the first choice for its accessibility and visibility. But they also did not want to reopen the yearlong debate that divided Portlanders when the bronze statue was first offered to the city in 2001.

The city ended up rejecting the offer after the NAACP and others said Cleeve may have owned a “colored servant” and should not be memorialized. Cleeve’s descendants said the “servant” was an employee and produced multiple other historical accounts that suggested he was not a slave.

“There are arguments on both sides,” said Peter DeWitt, a spokesman for the city. “But there’s no argument that there’s a controversy, and we didn’t want all those opinions to overshadow this almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the Amistad here.”

The schooner Amistad, the subject of the 1997 movie “Amistad,” will stop in Portland for a week of educational, cultural and spiritual events tied to the vessel’s first visit.

The original Amistad became the focus of a historic human rights case in 1839 when 53 African captives took command of the vessel in a bloody mutiny in the North Atlantic. The slaves were jailed on murder charges in New London, Conn., but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that they had been kidnapped and should be returned to Africa.

Phineas Sprague Jr., a Cleeve descendent who agreed to place the Cleeve statue at his Portland Yacht Services after the city rejected it, criticized the city for rejecting his Amistad offer because of the statue. He said taxpayers will now have to bear added costs for delaying repairs to the Maine State Pier.

“If Cleeve had a slave, then the right place to put the Amistad is right next to him, because the Amistad’s whole purpose is to open up the dialogue,” Sprague said. “If Cleeve didn’t have a slave and the Amistad is right next to him, it doesn’t make any difference.”

AP-ES-04-23-03 0216EDT



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