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John Brown’s farm and New York’s voter suppression history

The John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid is seen with the Olympic ski jumps. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

This year we are celebrating New York state’s acquisition of the John Brown farm 125 years ago, and it is good that we are.

But let us also recall a 200th anniversary linked to the farm — a connection that has particular importance this year as we witness a voter suppression spree around our country. Two hundred years ago, that was us–our New York ancestors–enacting explicit rules to keep Blacks from voting.

John Brown and his family came here to the Adirondacks as part of an effort to counteract state-sponsored suppression of voting rights for Black men.

We are now seeing a wave of voter suppression efforts in states controlled by Republican legislators fearful of losing their majority power. Well, guess what? That’s exactly what was going on here in good old New York back in the early 1800s. We New Yorkers apparently were leaders in voter suppression. We even put it into the state constitution! That’s more than the states are doing today.

Here’s our New York story. After the Revolution, New York allowed white and Black (free) men to vote (not women, of course) if they had $100 worth of property. The idea (not unique to New York) was that if you didn’t have some wealth, you weren’t really qualified to make decisions about the government. In 1821, as the idea of a broader democracy was gaining power, and the farming/working people were demanding more say in the government, the New York Constitution was amended to eliminate the property requirement for white men. But at the same time, the bar for Black men was raised to $250.

Slavery in New York was nearly abolished by then, but obviously granting full citizenship rights to Black people was a different issue than eliminating slavery. The political party in power was afraid that Black voters would go against them. Sound familiar? Five years later, only 16 Black men qualified to vote in New York City.

Here’s where the John Brown farm comes in. Supporters of Black voting rights tried for years to eliminate this discrimination. They managed to force a statewide vote on the issue in 1846 but lost overwhelmingly, winning only 30% of the vote. Interestingly, here in the Adirondacks, the vote was the exact opposite. Essex County was 71% in favor of Black voting rights, and Clinton County 73%. Other northern and western counties were also positive.

Gerrit Smith, abolitionist leader and wealthy landowner, was deeply involved in that 1846 effort, and was disappointed. He decided to help Black men vote another way — by getting them land worth $250. He created the Timbuctoo experiment in present day Lake Placid. John Brown came to help out.

Everyone knows that Brown turned his attention to the front-line battle against slavery elsewhere in the country, first in Kansas and then at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). But his family stayed, as part of the free Black community, and his body was brought back here to be buried in 1859.

The year after Brown was buried, the same year New Yorkers gave a majority of their votes to anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln for president, they again rejected equal voting rights for Black men. The statewide referendum was defeated 60 to 40. Once again, Essex County went the other way, with 58% in favor.

Fast forward to 1869, after all those legendary New York state contributions to the Union victory — most men, most deaths, tons of armaments, finance — and New Yorkers still rejected the idea of equal voting rights for Blacks. It wasn’t until the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1870, guaranteeing Black men the right to vote, that New York was forced to stop its voter suppression.

The John Brown farm endures not just as a memorial to one man’s ferocious opposition to slavery. It also symbolizes the complicated history of our own politics and democracy. Three times our ancestors had the opportunity to correct an obvious offense against democracy, and they didn’t do it. The struggle for freedom and equal rights is always with us–all of us.

The John Brown Farm State Historic Site’s 125th anniversary commemoration will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 17 and is sponsored by John Brown Lives!)

(Peter Slocum lives in Keene and is a trustee of the Essex County Historical Association and a volunteer at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm.)