By Caitlyn Collins
This past week, Albany City Hall opened its doors to the traveling historical exhibit entitled “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” free to the public. The exhibit depicts a story of the struggles and triumphs met by African Americans pursuing their right to vote in the American North prior to the Civil War.
The exhibit is modest in appearance, constructed mostly of wooden posts which hold banners that convey information on the important people involved in the land’s history as well as pictures of the area.
Dreaming of Timbuctoo began when Spanish teacher Martha Swan read an article in Orion Magazine in 1998 by Katherine Butler Jones. Jones tells the story of her journey through a trunk of heirlooms left behind by her great-great-grandparents.
Jones came across her ancestors’ marriage certificate and noticed that it had been signed in the city of Troy by Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a prominent abolitionist in the post-Civil War Era. Having heard of the work of Reverend Garnet prior to this discovery, Jones decided to dig deeper into her ancestors’ history.
Jones found that her great-great-grandparents resided in an area of land in the New York State Adirondacks known during its time as Timbuctoo. Wealthy landowner and abolitionist Gerrit Smith gave over 3,000 African American families land grants on which to live self-sufficiently and use as a marker of their citizenship in order to gain suffrage.
This project was in hopes of uplifting African Americans in the area who would otherwise remain disenfranchised.
Swan stated, “When I read Katherine’s article I was blown away. I realized that thanks to this land grant, some people had settled in Champlain Valley, two miles from where I was living at the time, and I thought ‘This is an extraordinary piece of history! How do people not know about this?’”
Most of Swan’s motivation was to convey this uncommon and unrecognized piece of New York State history. “I was so taken by the story that I tracked Katherine down and began talking with her about it. We both agreed that this needed to reach a broader audience, not only for a better understanding of the Adirondack area, but for a better understanding of the struggles surrounding African Americans voting during this time.”
With her interest piqued, Swan reached out to researcher Amy Godine, who was equally as intrigued and agreed to look into a way of getting this valuable history the recognition it deserved. Together, they assembled a team of amateur historians and scholars to tie together the story of Timbuctoo.
“Many have the misconception that the Northern states during times of slavery were filled with abolitionists who wanted to live equally with African American citizens,” Swan offered, “but this really wasn’t the case at all.”
It took the generosity of a man such as Gerrit Smith to grant the land and then men such as John Brown to go and farm with free African Americans, promoting their equality and human rights. The exhibit itself is sponsored by the organization John Brown Lives!, a group dedicated to the promotion of equality and human rights.
The display was first proposed to the Adirondack History Center Museum in the summer of 2001. Although created by a coalition of people who were not necessarily renowned in the historian community, museum Director Jackie Day agreed to premier the exhibit regardless. “We were this little teeny tiny engine that could,” Swan remarked, “People didn’t know who we were, but due to Amy’s reputation and our design team’s work, I think we made the museum feel as reassured as we could.”
“What we really wanted was for people to get joy from the exhibit, and primarily we wanted people to learn from it,” stated Swan. “There is something about it, maybe because it involves land that we are close to, or maybe because it pulls back the veil on the struggles that pervaded African American life in the North, but what I really think is that it captures a deeper presentation and more profound sense of the complexity and richness of history in the area.”
Through the history Jones uncovered, and Swan’s determination to convey it to the public, residents of Upstate New York can now have greater insight to the unique events that occurred right in our very own backyards.