Tracing the steps of Amistad survivors History: After gaining their freedom, the Africans lived among supporters for eight months in a small village near Hartford.

March 01, 1998|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

FARMINGTON, Conn. -- If this were a sequel to the movie "Amistad," an appropriate subtitle would be "The Untold Story."

Beyond this pastoral valley town of 22,000, just 10 minutes west of Hartford, it is not well known that the Amistad Africans made their home here. However, this is where you can walk in their footsteps, and imagine how they savored their hard-won freedom.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the illegally enslaved West Africans on March 9, 1841. They had spent more than 18 months in jail in New Haven. But they didn't have money for the voyage home.

By train and then sleigh, the survivors moved here, to a town of about 2,000 then, and a stronghold of the abolitionists who had backed their court battle.

They stayed eight months.

Today, guided tours of the well-preserved town provide glimpses of the Africans' final sojourn in Connecticut. Original houses still stand, including those where the leader Cinque lived.

The Farmington Room of the town library is a treasure-trove. The townspeople's diaries and the Africans' correspondence give us a feel for the time.

"They have not learned the contempt others have for them," John Pitkin Norton wrote in his diary on March 18, 1841, after meeting the Africans at the train station in Berlin, Conn.

"They talked to each other in their own language, laughed and joked a lot people will in a few days probably learn that these thirty Africans are not about to murder every inhabitant."

Farmington was a village of well-heeled merchants. Anti-slavery agitators and slave owners, they lived side by side, says tour guide Ernest R. Shaw. The town had 116 black residents.

Groups with opposing views on slavery held meetings in the union hall next to the church (now the Farmington Art Guild, a block away). In that same hall, women mended clothes for their new African neighbors.

The abolitionists hid fugitive slaves on their property, in barns, chimney foundations, attics and crawl spaces. Their houses still line Main Street, around the campus of Miss Porter's School, a private girl's academy attended by the future Jacqueline Kennedy that is Farmington's best-known institution.

Sarah Porter's father was the community's Congregational pastor. The Rev. Noah Porter welcomed the Africans to weekly worship services in the First Church of Christ, Congregational meeting hall, a quintessential white, steepled church at 75 Main St.

Porter and his wife took in 12-year-old Margru, one of the three Mende girls in the Amistad group. They lived at 116 Main St. The two other girls moved in with church families just down the street. The girls learned to sew, cook and garden; their formal education in English and Christianity continued as well.

"Rev. Porter was not extremely outspoken about abolition -- in fact he was chided by other abolitionists for not speaking out more strongly," says the current pastor, the Rev. Ned Edwards Jr.

By his deeds, however, Porter upset many church members. In 1841 church records, Edwards found a peak in the number of "letters of secession" -- departures.

Meanwhile, the African men and Kali, the 12-year-old boy, went to school by day and slept at night on the cramped upper floor of Samuel Deming's general store.

The building has been moved from its original lot on Main Street (now the fire department's parking lot).

Today at 2 Mill St., it is Your Village Store. Tina DiCaprio muses about the possibility of ghosts in the apartments upstairs as she assembles grinders -- Connecticut's version of sub sandwiches. "We're proud of the history here," she says.

Eventually, merchant Austin Williams bought land at 127 Main St. for a dormitory-style house for the Mende men. That's the black and white storage building to the left, up the driveway.

Only Cinque had a private room; his window is visible at the upper front corner.

Compared to jail, it was freedom. But liberty had limits.

"They did not have what you would call freedom, because at that time there wasn't a free and open society for blacks," said Amy Trout, curator of the Amistad exhibit at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. "It's hard for us to judge what their social world may have been. So much of what we have to go on is legend instead of documented fact."

Certainly they could not wander away from their protective village. The abolitionists reasonably feared reprisals. They also hoped the Africans would stick around and lecture on the anti-slavery circuit: They were polished and intelligent, and living proof that ending slavery was a worthy goal.

Residents believe the Africans embraced the town. They farmed 10 donated acres of meadow to raise money. They swam in a nearby canal basin and romped on the lawns of their wealthy hosts. They also buried one of their own in the town. On Aug. 7, 1841, 19-year-old Foone drowned while swimming in the canal, just down the hill behind Main Street.

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