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City's Role In Amistad Overlooked


October 25, 2009

On the second floor of the Old State House in downtown Hartford, tour guide Ronald Bolin stood between a stuffed two-headed calf and a pickled two-headed piglet as I peppered him with questions. Before coming here for a field trip, my English class at Capital Community College had watched the movie " Amistad," and we were curious as to why director Steven Spielberg hadn't included Hartford in his portrayal, even though many of the real-life events had happened right here in this building.

Bolin had shown us the Old State House's high-ceilinged meeting chambers and explained the details of the 1839 trial before taking us to see the "Museum of Curiosities," which housed the bizarre creatures that the students were now eagerly photographing with their cellphones.

"Starting in 1701, Connecticut had two state capitals, with the legislature and the courts meeting in Hartford in the spring and New Haven in the fall," Bolin said. "In 1818, a new Constitution made it into an annual swap, until finally in 1878 they passed a resolution making Hartford the full-time capital."

This capital-juggling explains why the Amistad trial started in Hartford but was decided in New Haven. An accident of history left Hartford with the short straw when it came to the Hollywood treatment of a great moment in the struggle for justice and human liberty.

On the one hand, there's only so much detail a director can include in a movie. On the other hand, Spielberg depicted drawn-out gory scenes of the captured Africans' bloody rebellion on board the Amistad, as well as the grandiose and long-winded arguments at the Supreme Court by Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams.

Student Jordan Sims had this to say: "When we watched the movie it was SO off from the stuff we learned at the museum. Like how come they left out the fact that the trial commenced in Hartford? I live in Hartford and I did not have any knowledge of this till I learned it this day."

As far as moviegoers can tell, the first part of the Amistad trial happened in New Haven, where the would-be slaves were held in prison. No mention of the fact that residents of Farmington housed them and collected funds for their return passage to Africa once the trial was all over, and no mention that the most brilliant and dramatic moments of attorney Roger Baldwin's arguments on the Africans' behalf played themselves out at the Old State House.

"It's on the state level where decisions are made that affect peoples' lives most directly," said William Bevacqua, director of communications for the Old State House. "We're looking to get people excited about their ability to make change close to home. People who have used state government to make a difference did it in this building; the Amistad trial is only one of many examples."

Indeed, in a well-hidden corner of the Old Statehouse, an exhibit called "Want Change?" celebrates the lives of those who used state government to advance their causes. These include Prudence Crandall, who started a school for African American girls; Frances Ellen Burr, who fought for women's right to vote; and legendary entertainer Phineas T. Barnum, who joined the General Assembly to advance the cause of black suffrage.

Maybe some of the students in my class will follow in their footsteps. In any case, taking a critical approach to "Amistad" has opened the door for our class to explore state and local history in greater depth, and I would encourage others to do the same. Folks might want to come to this extraordinary landmark in Hartford to see the two-headed animals, but they should come back if they want change.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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