Vermont Humanities

Humanities Grant Funds Exhibit on Black Homesteaders

Dreaming of Timbuctoo display panel showing a woodcut of a homesteader's cabin

“Dreaming of Timbuctoo” is a traveling exhibit that will be displayed through October at the Town Hall Theatre in Middlebury, with support from a Vermont Humanities Rapid Response grant. The exhibit, permanently housed at the John Brown Historic Farm State Site in Lake Placid, NY, came to Middlebury via Lindsay Pontius, director of education at the theatre.

Pontius initially heard about the exhibit while she was creating programming around the stories of Black homesteaders. The exhibit showcases the lives of Black homesteaders in the early 1800’s in the Adirondacks, not far from Vermont’s western border. Curated by historian Amy Godine, the content-heavy exhibit allows the viewer walk through history in an immersive and thoughtful way.

“I’ve seen people making connections between past and present, and unraveling what it means to call a piece of land home,” said Pontius. “I am learning so much from the conversations that come up as visitors wander though.”

Taped arrows on the floor help direct viewers through the exhibit and follow a timeline. Pontius noted that timeline is alive as more stories about Black homesteaders are uncovered. For example, Katherine Butler Jones, a Black woman from Massachusetts, first uncovered her own family’s timeline while going through old documents, including a marriage certificate that belonged to her great-great grandparents. After a further research, Jones found that her grandparents were a part of a voting rights project that gave land grants to 3,000 Blacks in the early 1800s. Jones wrote about the experience of tracing her family history and found an audience at John Brown Lives, an education and human rights non-profit based in Lake Placid. Executive Director Martha Swan of John Brown Lives consulted with Jones to form the exhibit after doing more research on other Black families who received land grants in the Adirondacks.

Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, NY was a prominent white philanthropist who gave away 120,000 acres in forty-acre lots to Blacks in New York City in the early 1800s who were disadvantaged by the stipulation of owning land in order to obtain voting rights. Calling his plan “a scheme for justice and benevolence,” Smith consulted with Frederick Douglass and other notable Black men of the time to ensure the transition and execution of the project.

It was not an easy feat for Blacks to make their way north to the Adirondacks, and many were deterred by the startup costs of owning and maintaining the land. Some grantees took the land grants and stayed in the city because of this difficulty. Acclimating to farm life was a difficult endeavor but there were families who were able to sustain life in the Adirondacks and formed connections with their white neighbors. The name Timbuctoo was chosen as an ode to the robust civilization of the Timbuktu people of Mali. Today, we use the word to describe a place very far away, but for the grantees, it was an aspiration.

“There is no life like that of the farmer, for overcoming the mere prejudice against color,” declared Black reformer and friend to Smith, Charles Bennet Ray.

“Dreaming of Timbuctoo” illustrates how important it is to uncover Black history in our own community. Historian Amy Godine will give a talk, “Timbuctoo in Vermont,” on October 14 at 6 pm at the Town Hall Theatre.

“Amy Godine is a brilliant speaker, and I am sure she will enliven and root this exhibit in the land and the local”, says Lindsay Pointus. She explains that Vermont’s own Courageous Stage program, which uses the theatre arts to engage students in an immersive education experience, is working on an audio dramatization that uses the idea of “home” as an entry point to make the exhibit even more accessible.

Vermont Humanities*** October 7, 2021