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Not-So-Academic Journal Links Our Present With Our Past

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

January 13, 2008

In September 1831, a group of abolitionists let it be known that they intended to open the country's first college for African American men in New Haven.

The city's historic distaste for slavery, and its location by the sea, made it a prime site. No less a figure than William Lloyd Garrison whose abolitionist newspaper "The Liberator" had arrived in town earlier that year said that New Haven enjoyed the country's most commodious environment for blacks.

For all that goodwill, it took just three days for white townspeople to quash the effort, and within a month, they'd attacked homes and businesses of the college's supporters.

The story of the thwarted attempt at education equality appeared in last summer's edition of Hog River Journal, and it was yet another ah-ha moment for its publisher, Elizabeth Normen.

If the Hog River has long been mostly buried beneath Hartford, its namesake is enjoying its fifth year as a lively historical quarterly. Staffers and subscribers are celebrating their anniversary starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at the reopened Hartford History Center at the city's downtown public library, which publishes the nonprofit magazine with input from a consortium of arts, historical, and educational organizations.

Since its first edition, the magazine has explored topics as varied as the notorious saloons of Front Street, the rollicking 1876 baseball team the Hartford Dark Blues and rationing during World War II. (A Windsor woman quoted in that one declined to give her name; her father had hoarded sugar for his coffee, and the shame still lingers.)

The venture started after Normen, who had worked at Hill-Stead Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum and earned a master's in American studies from Trinity College. "People kept asking, 'What are you going to do with that?' " she said, so she talked to a few of her museum friends, who worried that because of budget cuts, many of Hartford's stories were going by the wayside.

So Normen and Cynthia Cormier, a Hill-Stead colleague, gathered academic and museum folks to form what Normen calls "one of the most highly functioning committees I've ever sat on."

There wasn't money for serious market research, so Normen and others decided to publish their first issue and see what happened. This despite the iffy nature of magazines, of which there are some 7,200 in this country.

Some worried that the writers mostly free-lancers would run out of things to say, which only illustrated for Normen just "how disconnected people are from this whole idea of sense of place, and sense of history." About two years ago with loads more Hartford stories to tell the staff broadened their focus to the entire state.

Each issue has a theme (the most recent is "Nutmeg Tales"), and the articles are painstakingly edited by Jennifer Huget, an East Granby free-lance writer whose work has appeared in The Courant. Most of their authors are academics the story of New Haven's revolt against the potential of a black college was written by an Amherst College assistant professor but the articles are refreshingly readable.

And that New Haven story is precisely the tale the magazine seeks, said Normen. It's a historical event that absolutely has relevance. The parallels to the modern-day education-equality case Sheff v. O'Neill are unavoidable, though Hog River doesn't preach. It opens the door to comparisons to today's world and lets the readers choose.

"That kind of story helps you to understand how we got to where we are today, helps you connect the past with the present," said Normen. "What are some of the issues, what were the fears? I think there are some parallels could be drawn. I guess I'm hoping it's what our readers do on their own."

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.
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