ON THE SCENE: ‘Searching for Timbuctoo’
A year ago, Juneteenth became a federal holiday, a day set aside to celebrate the end of slavery, and June 19, 1865, the day that Union Army Maj. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, telling the slaves of their emancipation; more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and more than two months after the Civil War ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s April 9 surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
What did not occur then is the right for all Americans to vote. Ever since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, many Americans have struggled to gain the unfettered right to vote as state after state has established restrictions to make it harder for specific populations to vote.
On Saturday, June 18, the Adirondack Film Society and John Brown Lives! presented a screening of Paul A. Miller’s documentary “Searching for Timbuctoo” to a large audience at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. A screening was followed by a discussion with the director and his mentors, historian Amy Godine and SUNY Potsdam archaeologist Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron.
Timbuctoo is the name given to a sizeable Adirondack land give-a-way created and funded by abolitionist Gerrit Smith to enable free Black men living in New York state to gain the right to vote. On March 31, 1817, the New York State Legislature approved ending two centuries of slavery in the state beginning on July 4, 1827. The right to vote, however, was limited to free Black men who owned property worth at least $250; statewide, a total of 16 men met that criteria.
Smith believed that such voter suppression efforts had to be thwarted. With his father’s death in 1837, he acquired control of his estate, including substantial lands in the Adirondacks. In time he decided to award 40 acres of land valued at $200 to free Blacks who agreed to move to the Adirondacks, clear the land and make such improvements that the value would increase, enabling them to vote.
“Searching for Timbuctoo” documents Smith’s life, abolitionist activities and his Timbuctoo initiative. In addition, the documentary covers Smith’s inviting abolitionist John Brown to come to the town of North Elba to initially survey the lands so that the Blacks had a clear understanding of their property boundaries. Brown proposed modifying that arrangement to bring his family to North Elba and assist the Black settlers in gaining the needed skills to build a life in the Adirondacks. Furthermore, the film documents the details that led Brown to Kansas and on to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Miller’s life ambition wasn’t to become a documentarian. While in college, he received an internship at the newly syndicated “Oprah Winfrey Show” through his psychology professor’s contacts. The internship resulted in a job offer with the show, which led to work with National Geographic and PBS after six years. Miller learned about Timbuctoo through John Brown Lives! and decided to create a film about the settlement as part of his master’s degree thesis.
“My thesis adviser introduced me to Martha Swan, who introduced me to Amy Godine and all these other experts like Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, who had her students work on an archaeological dig at the site of Lyman Epp’s farm,” said Miller. “I learned about the stories from Amy’s articles. The wealth of stories in New York is incredible, but the Timbuctoo story just stuck with me, and I decided to go with it and try my best.”
Miller describes his best trait as being curious, a curiosity that led him to dive deeply into Smith’s life experiences and that of Brown, which included fleshing out the circumstances around his involvement in “Bloody” Kansas. Aided by commentary by Godine, Kruczek-Aaron, and others, Miller dives deeply into the Timbuctoo settlement. One leaves the film with a far richer understanding of what occurred 150 years ago and the ramifications that are still being played out today.
“I learned from experts like Amy and Hadley that there are stories and histories that have been erased and have to be brought back to life,” said Miller. “That’s what I hope this film does, as well as to bring light to some of the stories that have been untold.”
Kruczek-Aaron said that archaeologists aren’t often known for their storytelling abilities, so she felt that it was exciting to have Timbuctoo told through a documentary that’s been airing on several PBS stations across the state. She also said it made the dig a bit more exciting for her students who were working when Miller was filming.
“One of the exciting things about archaeology is that we are unearthing and touching things that are hundreds and at times thousands of years old,” said Kruczek-Aaron. “We have very personal and intimate connections with history.”
“One of the pleasures about writing my latest book called ‘Black Woods’ is exploring how Brown’s and Smith’s efforts have been represented in history from the time of John Brown’s death to now,” said Godine. “It’s gone through sea changes. For a long time, the story of John Brown’s effort was entirely about the end of slavery, and the reintroduction of his anti-racism that stood behind his hatred of slavery, his hatred of white supremacism; that’s vanished.”
Godine said that missing is that for Brown and Smith, and those who moved to the Adirondacks, their efforts were about Black rights; with Timbuctoo, it was about Black voting rights and fighting racial injustice. To her, an exciting element of Miller’s film is that it brings out their fight against racism, providing the through-thread that joins it to the present moment.
“Many people don’t want history to be told these days,” said Benita Law-Diao. “They’re trying to suppress history in many different ways in textbooks, the news, and so on. So this is a wake-up call for the Black community in particular. It’s so wonderful for me to see that we are trying to reclaim our history, as Paul Miller is doing with his film.”
Times and locations for screenings are available on Miller’s website (www.timbuctoofilm.com) with new ones added.
On Saturday, July 2, John Brown Lives! is unveiling a “Timbuctoo” historical marker at the junction of Bear Cub Lane and Old Military Road at 11 a.m. and hosting an open house from noon to 2 p.m. at Heaven Hill Farm, 302 Bear Cub Lane, where Hadley and her students are doing an archeological dig. A roundtable discussion and reception will be held at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)