Where the walls speak In the movie's wake, the true slave-to-liberty story of Amistad is re-enacted along Connecticut's historic freedom trail.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is noon, and the Amistad drama is about to unfold in the Senate chambers of Hartford's Old State House.

For an audience of tourists and lunchtime refugees from nearby office towers, this is September 1839.

"Give us free!" bellows attorney Roger S. Baldwin.

Baldwin quotes his most famous client: Sengbe Pieh. The 25-year-old West African rice farmer has survived a harrowing trans-Atlantic trip. He has been spirited away from his home. He has been renamed Joseph Cinque and sold in a slave market in Havana. He has been shackled inside a cargo ship named Amistad -- "friendship." He has led a mutiny at sea.

Now Cinque and the Africans from the Amistad are at the mercy of the American justice system.

Are they murderers or heroes? Are they people or property?

"Give ... us ... free!"

The audience is frozen. They have come to Connecticut's Old State House to hear the echo of history, in the very room where one of the Amistad trials took place. In the front row, a woman wipes her eyes with a tissue.

"History is supposed to be thrilling," explains Wilson H. Faude, executive director of the Old State House museum. "We say, 'Look around you ... The walls speak. We listen.' "

He shrugs off the red robe of attorney Baldwin. At heart, Faude is a showman, reveling in his role in the stirring and educational play.

And, he is eager to set the record straight in the wake of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad."

The movie has grossed $42 million at the box office, according to industry estimates by Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. It has earned four Academy Award nominations.

Hollywood's version doesn't stick to the facts. But like many Connecticut historians and tourism promoters, Faude doesn't knock it: They're counting on the movie to help them snag new audiences.

"The last time we were a 'destination' in this way was in 1993," when "Jurassic Park" fanned dinosaur fever, says Maddy Cohen, spokeswoman from the state's hired national public relations firm. That year, attendance shot up at the state's dinosaur fossil park and natural history museum.

Now officials hope the Amistad connection will bring in hundreds of thousands of new visitors beyond the turn of the century, says Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism. Tourists attracted by cultural history on average spend 1.2 nights in the state, and spend more than $500 during a visit, he adds.

It's a little soon to estimate the potential economic impact: While Dombroskas expects the movie to peak in attraction and then fade, he thinks Connecticut history-related tourism will only grow. His office logged more than 1,500 calls about Amistad sites after the movie opened, he says.

"The movie has opened up a whole aspect of history that has been neglected in the normal teaching of American history," Dombroskas says. "It opens a whole new level of cultural heritage tourism for Connecticut."

If the state markets its history well, five years from now, "It's not going to be, 'Remember that movie?' but instead, 'Remember, Connecticut is the place to go to learn about the Amistad, the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement.' "

State tourism promoters have begun reaching beyond their usual base of New Yorkers and New Englanders and are courting African-American travel groups

"Until now, Connecticut was kind of a nonplayer in the African-American travel market, but maybe people are finally realizing there is money to be made," says Solomon J. Herbert, publisher of Black Meetings & Tourism magazine, which is read by travel agents. "African-Americans spend an estimated $35 billion every year on travel, and that includes convention and leisure travel."

The state's five-year tourism plan includes Amistad events, recognition for African-American historical sites, tours, travel packages and more.

Already, along the state's scenic shoreline and in its larger cities, visitors can find a dozen ways to rediscover the Amistad chapter in American history.

Two museums -- the New Haven Colony Historical Society and the Connecticut Historical Society -- have brought Amistad artifacts out of storage. Visitors may now:

* Read from the letters of 12-year-old Kali, whose quick grasp of English made him the Africans' spokesman.

* Study the only known portrait of Cinque, which hangs in New Haven.

* Follow a Connecticut Freedom Trail linking African-American history sites.

* Steal a moment of serenity on a pew in a Farmington church that sheltered the African men and children.

* Watch shipbuilders craft a $2.8 million replica of the Amistad at Mystic Seaport.

The history is all that's left behind: On Nov. 27, 1841, the Africans departed for home. Of the original 53 on the Amistad, 35 survived to make the return trip.

Despite the recent high profile of this poignant episode in abolition, not everyone is knowledgeable of the Amistad. Straying from the designated trail, you will encounter people who know little of the story. It has not been taught in many schools -- not even in Connecticut, where it happened. Few realize, also, that slavery continued in the state until 1848.

However, you will also meet Connecticut residents who are mighty proud that this is where freedom triumphed for one boatload of captives.

As the noon hour tolls at a nearby church, Hartford businessman Jim Griffin slips out of his office and over to the Old State House for a lunch date with history. Griffin had heard about the popular re-enactment, and wanted to see it for himself.

"When they said that we were sitting in the room where the Amistad trial actually took place," Griffin says, "it gave me chills."

"Setting the Record Straight" is performed Tuesdays at noon and Thursdays at 1 p.m. as costumed interpreters present the Amistad legal case in the restored Senate chamber where the first trial took place Sept. 17, 1839. The free performances last about 30 minutes. Writer Kathleen Hunter mined the Amistad court records to unmask the motives and strategies of the legal opponents. Noticeably absent are the Africans: Museum interpreters portray many key figures, but leave the pivotal ones to the imagination.

The Old State House is located at 800 Main St., Hartford 06103 (Interstate 91, Exit 31). It's open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. For information, call 860-522-6766.

Other Amistad sites in Connecticut include:

Hartford

Connecticut Historical Society: "Amistad: A True Story of Freedom" is the newest and largest of the many Amistad exhibits in Connecticut. It opened Feb. 18. Through news clippings and quotes from the time period, the Amistad story unfolds. The exhibit fills five galleries with nearly 100 artifacts, enhanced by sound and light effects. It is scheduled to remain open at least two years.

1 Elizabeth St., Hartford, 06105 (Interstate 84, Exit 46); 860-236-5621. Online at www.hartnet.org/chs; open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Last entry at 4: 15 p.m. Admission: Adults, $6; seniors, $5; students, $3; children 5 and younger, free. Open free to all visitors the first Saturday of the month.

* Faith Congregational Church: The building is modern, but this African-American church is one of Hartford's earliest. At the time of the Amistad, it was called Talcott Street Congregational Church. Its leader was the Rev. James W. C. Pennington.

Pennington was born a slave in Maryland. He escaped in 1827, earned an education and became an abolitionist. He led a New Haven congregation that aided the Africans in 1839. When named pastor of Talcott Street in 1840, his support continued.

He founded the Union Missionary Society, which raised money for the Africans' voyage home. This society also oversaw the five missionaries who accompanied the Mende people back to Africa. This same missionary movement led to the founding of black schools across America.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara E. Headley, senior pastor, welcomes visitors. Call ahead for church hours. Tour groups may view a documentary video.

2030 Main St., Hartford, 06120. Reservations required; call the Greater Hartford Tourism District at 800-793-4480.

Farmington

* Farmington Historical Society: In March 1841, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the district court ruling that freed the Africans. They faced one more dilemma. They had no way home.

For eight months, the Mende lived here among abolitionists who also harbored runaway slaves. Many of the buildings they used are still standing. These are mostly private homes; guided tours are the best way to take in Farmington. Many Connecticut Freedom Trail sites are here.

P.O. Box 1645, Farmington, Conn. 06034. Walking tours by appointment. Leave a message at the office, 860-678-1645. Admission: $2 a person, $20 minimum for groups.

* Heritage Trails Sightseeing Tours: A former airline sales executive, Ernest Shaw is an energetic guide to Farmington's Amistad and abolition sites.

He calls his van tour "The Lost Eight Months" -- referring to the the Mende people's sojourn in Farmington from March to November in 1841. Their short stay here as free people is not chronicled in Amistad histories or in the Spielberg movie.

The men slept above a store until donors built a dormitory-style house at 127 Main St. The girls were taken in by abolitionist families. They became a part of the life of the town.

Contact Ernest R. Shaw, P.O. Box 138, Farmington, Conn. 06034-0138; $15 a person, reservation required; call 860-677-8867.

New Haven

* Amistad Memorial: Dedicated in 1992 on the site of the New Haven Jail, the towering sculpture by artist Ed Hamilton commemorates the courage of the Africans who fought for their freedom. The top of the monument can be viewed only from the windows of City Hall offices. This panel pays tribute to all who died on the Middle Passage, the horrific journey by slave ship from Africa to America.

The captives from the Amistad lived in four "apartments" in the jail for two years.

Here, they were examined by phrenologists, who believed that the shape of one's head revealed intellect and personality. Plaster casts were made of their heads, and later wax figures for a traveling exhibit. The jailer, meanwhile, collected 12 1/2 cents from tourists who lined up for a look at the captives; newspaper accounts suggest more than 3,000 spectators came.

The jailer and his wife were appointed as guardians for three little girls. Their home was in Westville, a suburb two miles from New Haven (now a section of the city).

After the U.S. District Court in New Haven declared them free in January 1841, the men also moved to Westville. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; the Africans waited in Westville for the final ruling.

165 Church St. outside City Hall; City Hall hours: Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, contact the Amistad Committee Inc. at 203-387-0370.

* New Haven Green: With your back to the monument, enjoy the view of the elm-lined New Haven green. By many accounts, the Africans excelled at gymnastics; they practiced during supervised fresh-air visits to the green.

In front of you are two Congregational churches, whose members disagreed about slavery; some lent aid to the Africans.

Students and theologians from the nearby Yale University Divinity School walked across the green daily to teach them English and Christianity. There's a small Amistad display at the school's Battell Chapel, near Elm and College streets.

Visitors from Yale included Josiah Willard Gibbs, a linguist and professor of sacred literature. He learned to count in the Africans' Mende language, then went to New York harbor to find sailors who could serve as translators.

Gone from the green is New Haven's state house, where the Colonial government wintered and where the second Amistad trial took place.

The green is downtown, bounded by Church, Temple, Chapel and Elm streets.

* New Haven Colony Historical Society: "Cinque Lives Here: Amistad Artifacts from the Historical Society's Collection" is a small exhibit that's rich with local flavor.

Key figures in the Amistad defense were members of the historical society. They deposited many treasures here.

The foremost of these is a classical oil portrait of Cinque, painted from life by Nathaniel Jocelyn. Cinque's bearing is noble, strong. Few artworks of the time portrayed Africans or African-Americans as heroic. The local art league refused to display this one, prompting Jocelyn to resign.

114 Whitney Ave., New Haven. 06510. (I-91, Exit 3); open Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults, $2; children, $1. Call 203-562-4183 for coming events and lectures.

* Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ: The pastor, the Rev. John Henry Scott III, lectures on the church's role in the Amistad case for tour groups and schools. Church records detail the work of key Amistad figures; portraits of them hang in the vestibule.

When the Amistad captives arrived in August 1839, they were near starvation and unprepared for New England's approaching winter. This African-American congregation took up their cause. It provided clothes and blankets, and raised money for the Africans' welfare and defense. The pastor was the Rev. James W. C. Pennington; it was New Haven's first black church.

Begun in 1820 as a parish "society" by 24 former slaves and a white social reformer, the church defied the segregation around them. The white founder was abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn, who later helped found the original Amistad Committee for the Africans' defense. His brother painted Cinque's portrait.

By the late 1830s, members were meeting in a rented church on Temple Street off the New Haven Green, not far from the jail. The church ran a night school where blacks learned to read.

Since 1959, the church has been at 217 Dixwell Ave., New Haven, 06511. Call ahead for church hours: 203-787-5839.

Mystic

* Mystic Seaport: On March 8, at 2 p.m., shipbuilders and dignitaries will gather at the seaport for the ceremonial keel-laying of a $2.8 million Amistad replica. Seaport visitors will watch the ship take shape during the next two years. The finished goodwill ship and floating classroom will tour the East Coast.

Worth a day trip, the Mystic Seaport is a replicated New England coastal village, with a working shipyard, planetarium, foundry and whaling-history center. There are tall ships to explore and daily workshops, including Amistad talks.

Current exhibitions include "Voyage to Freedom," giving Amistad history and cultural information about the Mende people and displaying props from the Spielberg film.

P.O. Box 6000; 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic 06355-0990 (I-95, Exit 90); call 860-572-5315 or 888-973-2767; online at www.amistad.mysticseaport.org; open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 29. Spring hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults, $16; children ages 6 to 12, $8; children ages 5 and younger, free.

When you go

* For lodging, dining, entertainment, group tours and Amistad events in central Connecticut: Contact the Greater Hartford Tourism District at 800-793-4480, or online at www.travelfile.com/get/ghtd.

* For statewide travel information: Contact the Connecticut Vacation Center at 800-CTBOUND. Request a copy of the free "Connecticut Vacation Guide" and a calendar of events. For information, call the state Office of Tourism, 860-270-8080.

* The Connecticut Freedom Trail rambles across the state, highlighting 90 landmarks of abolition, civil rights and African-American achievements. Look for the metal marker bearing the lantern and North Star symbols. The trail is divided into four day trips; you'll want to plan ahead to see as much or little as your time allows. Use the auto-tour kit, which includes four cassette tapes and a map booklet. To order, send $19.95, plus $4.50 for shipping and handling to the Amistad Committee Inc., P.O. Box 2936, Westville Station, New Haven, Conn. 06515. Or call 203-387-0370 for names of Connecticut museums that sell the tapes. A bike rally is planned along the trail Sept. 19-20.

* Many books about the Amistad have become available. If you'd like to steep yourself in the history before your visit, several Connecticut museum officials recommend Howard Jones' newly reissued "Mutiny on the Amistad," Oxford University Press, $12.95.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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