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.

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

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.

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