'Lincoln' film's portrayal of Lydia Hamilton Smith is close to heart of Lancaster woman
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LANCASTER, Pa. -- Darlene Colon is eagerly awaiting next month's release of the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln."
For Ms. Colon, it's personal, sort of.
On the big screen, she will see a portrayal of someone she knows well but has never met: Lydia Hamilton Smith.
Ms. Colon, 58, regularly portrays Smith, the housekeeper and confidant of Thaddeus Stevens, during visits to nursing homes, historical societies and schools.
"She was a phenomenal lady. She accomplished so much in the time she was in," Ms. Colon said.
Smith faced many roadblocks in life. She was a woman in a time when women were not considered the equals of men. She was biracial at a time when blacks were in slavery in the South and unequal to whites in the North. And she was a widow raising two sons, Ms. Colon said.
Yet Smith became a property owner in Lancaster, Washington, D.C., and possibly Philadelphia.
She was active in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves flee to freedom. And she was a friend and advocate for Stevens, whom Ms. Colon believes treated Smith as an equal.
"She was not a stay-in-the-background lady. She was very outspoken," said Ms. Colon, who has done extensive research on Smith.
Ms. Colon had hoped to be contacted by representatives of Spielberg's studio, or by S. Epatha Merkerson, the actress who plays Smith in the movie.
Yet Ms. Colon, of Lancaster city, remains hopeful that Ms. Merkerson's portrayal is consistent with her research.
"I've seen her in strong roles," she said of Ms. Merkerson, whose longest-running role was as a tough police investigator in the television series "Law & Order."
Critics who saw an advance screening of "Lincoln" at the New York Film Festival last week praised the performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens. Some wrote that Jones may rate a "best supporting actor" Oscar.
The film's release, and Mr. Jones' portrayal, have been eagerly anticipated by Stevens supporters.
Lancaster's Civil War-era congressman fought tirelessly against slavery and for civil rights.
His legislative legacy is the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which serve as the basis for civil rights law.
One reviewer commented that Mr. Jones' character serves as the principled moral compass of the film, pushing President Abraham Lincoln from more pragmatic, conciliatory positions with the southern states.
Stevens, and by association, Lydia Smith, have not fared well in past movies.
Stevens was thinly disguised as villain Austin Stoneman in D.W. Griffith's silent epic, "Birth of a Nation." In that 1915 film, it was the Ku Klux Klan who were cast as the heroes for saving white Southern society.
Stevens also was the villain in 1942's "Tennessee Johnson." The hero in that story was Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson. Stevens led the impeachment effort against Johnson, which failed by one vote.
Despite Stevens' dominance of the House of Representatives during the mid-19th century, he seems little known today, Ms. Colon said.
"It amazes me that for all that he did, that so little is known about him outside of this area," she said.
"I'm hoping that he gets his due, because he was a phenomenal man."
He often is represented as a bitter, sharp-tongued man, who walked with a clubfoot and wore a bad wig on his bald head.
Ms. Colon, however, said that just under that surface was a kind man who helped anyone who came to him.Although his words could be cutting to adversaries, he had a sharp wit and a quick sense of humor among friends.
He also was willing to risk his own liberty in his fight against injustice.
Recent research has pointed to Stevens and Smith hiding runaway slaves at his South Queen Street home, which was a federal crime at that time.
Ms. Colon, an assistant account administrator in the Trust Department of Fulton Financial, feels a close connection to Stevens.
Through researching her family history, she found that her great-great-great grandfather, Ezekiel Thompson, was involved in the Christiana Resistance in 1851. He was one of 38 arrested who were defended by Stevens and acquitted.
Her great-great grandfather was recruited by Capt. Thaddeus Stevens, the congressman's nephew, to serve as one of the Colored Troops in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Ms. Colon has attempted to make that history real to her family. The mother of four, grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother of two has told them the stories of their family.
The girls have even helped her dress in the 19th-century corsets and skirts before she portrays Lydia Smith.
"They're always calling with questions," she said of her family.
She always tries to tie that history in with historical events of the time.
First Published November 4, 2012 12:00 am