Slavery case re-enacted

February 9, 2010
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Today's post is from IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger: 

Braving the cold and snow, a group of about 15 eighth graders from Indianapolis Public School’s Cold Spring School 315 participated in a re-enactment of the trial of Polly Strong, a 24-year-old woman who fought for – and won – her freedom in 1820 following a decision by the Indiana Supreme Court.

The decision overturned a Knox Circuit Court decision that Col. Hyacinth Lasselle could own Strong, her mother, and brother as his slaves, even though the Indiana Constitution outlawed slavery in 1816.

About 200 more students in grades 4 through 12 were expected for two scheduled performances, but the other schools were unable to attend because of weather conditions. Only one performance took place around 12:30 p.m. at the Indiana Supreme Court, following the students’ tour of the Indiana Statehouse.

For those classes and anyone else who couldn’t make it today, there’s a webcast of the production on the court’s Web site. The site also includes links to documents that were used to put the presentation together, including court documents from Knox County and the Supreme Court’s opinion in the case of State vs. Lasselle.

Students portrayed the various roles in the production, including Indiana Supreme Court Justices Isaac Blackford, James Scott, and Jesse Holman; Strong’s mother, Jenny; brother, James; Lasselle; and lawyers for both sides.

Indianapolis native Veronique Briscoe-Beuoy, a 2L at Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, passionately played Strong. She said she was happy to travel three hours each way to perform the role. Readers might recognize her name because she was part of an Indiana Lawyer article about interns who worked for Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic last summer.

Usually, the courtroom is at capacity during performances like this one, said Elizabeth Osborn, who oversees the Courts in the Classroom program. She added it was unusual to have every student receive a part to play.

All members of the audience participated – a court staff member prompted them with signs that said “applause,” “yes,” and “no,” depending on who was speaking. At least one audience member – without prompting from a sign – booed Lasselle.

Briscoe-Beuoy and Osborn answered insightful questions from members of the audience at the end.

It was heartening to see that the students took such an interest in the trial and remained serious about their roles, even if it meant they were in costume – the lawyers and Lasselle wore bowler hats and the judges wore robes, of course – and even though most weren’t aware they’d have a role to play until they arrived.

Hopefully the weather won’t deter other classes from attending future Courts in the Classroom presentations, which are open to the public.

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