Dreaming of Timbuctoo: From Africa to the Adirondacks

February 2, 2002 - February 28, 2002
Central Library, Grand Lobby
Exhibition Notes

Little known to most New Yorkers, the dramatic pre-Civil War story of African-American homesteaders, who established a community in the Adirondacks to gain voting rights and a piece of the American dream, is graphically retold in "Dreaming of Timbuctoo," a special exhibition  in celebration of Black History Month.

In 1846, the prominent New York land speculator and abolitionist Gerrit Smith resolved to give away 120,000 acres (mostly in Essex and Franklin Counties) from his Adirondack holdings to African-American New Yorkers who were eager to homestead and vote, but lacked the means to do either. Convinced that black men were no less entitled to voting rights than white, and that every person who wanted a farm should have one, Smith gave away vast tracts of Adirondack wilderness between 1846-1853 with the support of Frederick Douglass, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and other leading black reformers.

Generally known by its phonetic spelling of Tim-buk-tu, Timbuctoo was the intellectual and commercial capital of West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, and became the informal name for one of several African-American enclaves in the Adirondacks. "Timbuctoo" signified the opportunity to own land – thus allowing the right to vote – and to pursue agricultural self-sufficiency and independence. For the 3,000 black New Yorkers who received parcels of land from abolitionist Gerrit Smith, nearly 1,000 of the grantees hailed from New York and Kings Counties, including Brooklyn’s Willis A. Hodges. For a time, Hodges traded his life as a grocer and publisher of the Brooklyn-based anti-slavery newspaper, The Ram’s Horn, for the rugged life of Adirondack homesteader.

The "Dreaming of Timbuctoo" exhibition consists of historic photographs with panels of text, copies of the original "grants book" maintained by Gerrit Smith, and an enlarged map that indicates the holdings of African-American grantees in the Adirondack counties where land was distributed.

"We initiated this project because an important chapter of Adirondack and New York State history has been missing from the record for over 150 years," explains Martha Swan, Director of John Brown Lives!. "Our curator Amy Godine and a band of dedicated researchers delved into archival records all across the state. A surprising and significant story, with strong connections to Brooklyn and Albany, has emerged, thanks to this remarkable, mostly volunteer group effort."

History of the project

In summer 2001, "Dreaming of Timbuctoo" premiered at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. The exhibition’s showing at Brooklyn Public Library in February 2002 marks the beginning of a two to three year tour to museums, college campuses and historical societies throughout New York.

"Dreaming of Timbuctoo" was initiated by John Brown Lives!, an Adirondack-based freedom education and human rights project. The exhibition is curated by Amy Godine. The designers of the exhibition are Stephen Horne and Kevan Moss of Kevan Moss Design, and fabrication is by Jim Brush.

"Dreaming of Timbuctoo" is a joint project of John Brown Lives! and the Essex County Historical Society. Funding for this exhibition is provided by the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities/National Endowment for the Humanities, International Paper Foundation, Charles H. Douglas Trust, Carl E. Touhey Foundation and the Puffin Foundation. Presentation of this exhibition at Brooklyn Public Library is made possible by a grant from Tribune New York Foundation.