The Quintessential Black Farmer: Dreaming of Timbuctoo

Dreaming of Timbuctoo, an exhibit documenting a chapter of black
land ownership in Upstate NY at The History Center in Ithaca

by Kirtrina Baxter

The concept of the black farmer is not just a vestige of slavery. In fact, Africans had agricultural systems for centuries, and as some more recent studies assert, even millenia ago. In this county we know as the US, however, African American farmers are usually associated with post-enslaved people, staying on at the plantations where they were enslaved in the south. What a lot of people may not know is that blacks owned land and farmed on that land in the south and in the north during slavery and after.

Right here in our own neck of the woods, there were black farming communities set up in the mid-1800’s. I visited an exhibit this past week at The History Center in Tompkins County entitled Dreaming of Timbuctoo. This exhibit speaks of an abolitionist plan right here in New York State to give 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks (mostly in Essex and Franklin Counties) to 3000 black people in 1846. 

“The vision of an Adirondack farm settlement for African-American New Yorkers was a response to the nightmarish facts of daily life for black people in metropolitan New York in the 1830s and 1840s. Waves of white immigrants were displacing black laborers and artisans from long-held jobs. A housing shortage forced impoverished black families into epidemic-ridden slums. Bounty hunters on the trail of fugitive slaves prowled black neighborhoods. Most insultingly, a discriminatory $250 property requirement for free black men disenfranchised nearly all black New Yorkers from 1821 until 1873.” 

Dreaming of Timbuctoo

Of these 3000 grantees, not many settled on the land. Some felt it was a difficult move because they would be isolated from the black communities of support they were familiar with and accustomed to in the city. Others assessed the move as not economically secure enough, realizing the costly efforts of homesteading would be an enormous undertaking that included the cost of moving which many could not afford.  And still others were so immersed in the freedom movement that they could not break away to work the land. There were various reasons why some never took possession of their granted land; however, there were also many reasons to do so.

The following quote comes from a speech at the National Convention of Colored People in Troy, NY in 1847:

[Forsake] the cities and towns and their employments of dependency therein, and emigrate to those parts of the country where land is cheap, and become cultivators of the soil, as the surest road to respectability and influence.

Willis A. Hodges and Charles B. Ray, Agriculture Committee

Black people understood the value of land ownership and farming and also saw it as a way to ease their life in a racist society. Some thought life in a farming community could help dissuade racism due to the shared principles among farming neighbors.

There is no life like that of the farmer, for overcoming the mere prejudice against color. The owners of adjacent farms are neighbors… There must be mutual assistance, mutual and equal dependence, mutual sympathy – and labour, ‘the common destiny of the American people,’ under such circumstances, yields equally to all, and makes all equal. 

Charles B. Ray, Theodore Wright, and James McCune Smith, responding to Gerrit Smith’s gift of land in 1846. Gerrit Smith Papers, Courtesy of Syracuse University Library, Special Collections.

Although there were many who did not utilize this opportunity, some did, and they proceeded to create several black farming communities in the Adirondacks. One of those communities came to be known as Timbuctoo, informally named after the lost city in Africa that was so famous at the time.

The town of Timbuctoo did not flourish, but was met with difficult times and difficult farming conditions as a result of “risky Adirondack farming.” This town met the same fate as a lot of the other area settlements at the time. There were, however, families in Franklin County who went on to become part of the fabric of life in those areas.

Black land ownership is and has been of critical concern to the black community. Over the last 200 years there have been many factors that led to the increase and decline of land ownership for blacks, including black farmers. Over the next few months in The Quintessential Black Farmer, we will visit some of the historical, societal and economic influences that attributed to the decline of black farming and also the resurgence of farming for African Americans: farming in urban areas, reclaiming land and the new generation of black farmers.

Thanks to The History Center of Tompkins County for the exhibition, notes and inspiration. All quotes and pictures can be found in the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit.