“Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” a ground-breaking exhibit that unearths the little-known story of black land ownership in Vermont, opening Aug. 22 and running through September and October at the Jackson Gallery in Middlebury.
The “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” installation will be enhanced by several events including lectures and play readings. The first event that accompanies the exhibit opening will be a panel discussion led by Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives!. The panel, which includes Lindsay Houpt-Varner, director of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, and Benita Law-Diao, a community and environmental activist, begins at 4 p.m. and focuses on the black experience in the region. This exhibit is sponsored by Middlebury College and a Vermont Humanities grant.
The stories of these North Country settlements are told through a series of panels featuring enlargements of historic photographs and documents that shine a light on this relatively un-examined episode in the local history. And while these settlements have been largely forgotten, the exhibit’s underlying themes of voting rights, land reform and income distribution are very much applicable today.
This visually rich storytelling is a signature program of John Brown Lives! — a freedom education and human rights project located in the Adirondacks. Researched and curated by historian Amy Godine, this freshly discovered history spans both sides of Lake Champlain.
Prior to the Civil War, free blacks were unable to vote without owning land. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist who was once one of the largest landowners in New England, sought to overcome this with an audacious and visionary plan: He gave away 120,000 acres of land to 3,000 free black families, encouraging them to build lives as farmers in Essex and Franklin counties in the Adirondacks. Smith enlisted Frederick Douglass to help attract families to the plots, and John Brown moved his family to the region in 1849 to support the effort.
While Smith ultimately gave away all of the 40-acre plots, mostly to downstate families, most of the land was never farmed—though dozens of families did make the long journey to this remote place, far from the cities they knew, and struggled to make a living on this rugged land. Many families left Northern New York and moved on to settle in Vermont.
The Jackson Gallery is located in the lower level of Town Hall Theater, a community and cultural venue located in the center of Middlebury. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday noon to five, and an hour before any public events in the building.