175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

Freedom and Education

Margru was among the few children aboard the Amistad’s slave cargo. She was the only Amistad captive who returned to the United States after becoming legally free. With the help of abolitionist Lewis Tappan, she found a home and a supportive scholarly environment in Oberlin.

Margru’s journey began in a region of West Africa called Mende, now Sierra Leone. Margru, whose name means “black snake” in her native language, was later given the English name Sarah Margru Kinson. When she was just 6 or 7 years old, she was sold to Spanish slave traders to repay a family debt. In January 1839, with three other children and an unknown number of adults, Margru was forced aboard the Portuguese cargo ship Tecora headed for Cuba.

In Havana, the slaves were auctioned off, and Margru was one of 53 purchased by two Cubans. In June, the schooner La Amistad (the Spanish word for “friendship”) was chartered for the other side of Cuba, where the new slave owners lived. After four days at sea, the Africans staged a revolt under the leadership of Sengbe Pieh (commonly known as Cinque). The captives seized control of the schooner, killed the captain and the cook, and drove the two other crew members overboard. The two new Cuban slave owners were ordered to sail the boat back to Africa.

But the ship veered far off course. In August 1839, La Amistad was sighted near Long Island Sound. The U.S. Navy seized the vessel and towed it to New London, Connecticut. Publicity surrounding the Amistad attracted Lewis Tappan, a New York philanthropist and a chief benefactor of Oberlin College. He helped organize other abolitionists to raise funds for the captives’ legal defense.

During the Amistad trials, which would determine whether the captives were still the property of their Cuban purchaser or free to return to Africa, John Quincy Adams defended the slaves before the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1841. The Mendians were legally freed, and a group of missionaries, including two from Oberlin, accompanied the former captives back to Sierra Leone.

It was during the trials that Margru received her anglicized name. Tappan advocated strongly for the ship’s children, and eventually became Margru’s greatest supporter. She joined 35 surviving Mendians to return to Africa to establish a mission and a school. In 1846, Sarah Margru Kinson returned to the United States and settled in Oberlin under Tappan’s sponsorship.

Sarah began her education in Oberlin’s Little Red Schoolhouse, where she not only had the distinction of becoming a bright scholar, but she also was the first female international student in America. Marianne Parker Dascomb, principal of the Female Department at Oberlin College, oversaw Sarah’s schooling and progress. For a year, she boarded with Lucy Stanton, the first African American to graduate from Oberlin’s Female Department.

Through letters and accounts, Sarah seemed to enjoy life in Oberlin. But she longed to return to her homeland. In 1849, she returned to Africa to the mission she and others established to work as a missionary and teacher. She married Edward Green in 1852, a Christian African missionary educated in British missionary schools.

Sarah and her husband seemed to make a good team, but unfortunately their mission went awry when Edward was dismissed from his job for “alleged intemperance and for seducing girls at the mission school.” At this point, Sarah’s name disappears from mission publications, and no further letters or documents have been located.

Sources: Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive by Marlene D. Merrill; The Capture of La Amistad, from the Oberlin Heritage Center online; AMISTAD America Inc.; and Electronic Oberlin Group