Wednesday, January 24, 2024

“The Black Woods” highlights overlooked piece of Adirondack history

Alice Green outside her Essex residence near Lake Champlain.

By Alice Paden Green

Before the 1999 founding of John Brown Lives—an Upstate New York education and human rights group—few in this country, including residents of the Adirondacks, knew of the historical connection between the 19th century white abolitionist named John Brown and the Adirondacks. Even fewer were aware of Timbuctoo, a 120,000-acre Adirondack land gift in 1846 to 3,000 “respectable” Black New Yorkers from a landowner named Gerrit Smith. Ostensibly, his admirable mission was to make Black men eligible to vote. Under state law then, Black men were required to own property worth a minimum of $250 to exercise that right.

Saratoga Springs writer Amy Godine joins a number of recent authors who have written about and focused on this important page in our nation’s history. But, her new book, “The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier,” is significantly different. It stands out as the most in-depth story of that period; extremely well written and researched. Even those familiar with the story of Timbuctoo, John Brown, and Gerrit Smith will learn new details about Smith, those who were gifted with land, and the land’s impact on them and their progeny still today.

Perhaps, the greatest contribution of this magnificent book is that the author unearthed a history of Black pioneers that was long buried and forgotten but now restored to a position of prominence across New York and, hopefully, the country. These pioneers can now be seen and remembered as courageous people who struggled against great odds to explore and pursue opportunities in a strange and often unwelcoming environment to become free people who could be empowered to work for change in a racist land.

While the Timbuctoo story and the history surrounding it are brilliantly recounted by Godine, she also points out the failure of Smith’s mission to achieve “justice and benevolence.” His generous experiment produced few farmers. Few of the grantees came North, and most of those who did, eventually left. So, it is quite likely that after people read “The Black Woods” they may be easily left wondering about the significance of its chapters for today’s world, especially Adirondack communities that are struggling with overwhelming issues such as racism, diversity, poverty and incarceration.

What was achieved, and what is its lasting significance and legacy? These are questions well worth pursuing. In the book’s epilogue, Godine reports recent responses to the Timbuctoo story as having a positive impact in and beyond the Adirondacks, as evidenced in a recent documentary, “Searching for Timbuctoo.” 

I am a Black woman who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s with very few people of color in the Adirondacks. It would have been inspirational and important for my psychological and social development if I had known that Blacks had ventured into the Adirondacks long before my family went there seeking a good life. My siblings and I were convinced that we were the first Blacks to settle in the area. We did not know because no one around us knew.

The Timbuctoo story may force readers to reflect on whether there have been real advances made toward freedom and equity for Blacks. While there are new and encouraging initiatives taking place in the Adirondacks that are dedicated to achieving such goals, it is difficult to discern their impact on reducing racial injustice.

John Brown Lives, the North Star Underground Railroad, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and others have made major contributions to promoting civil rights and educating communities about Black history. Yet, we cannot ignore that many Adirondack communities are approximately 95 percent white. Seventy percent of the Adirondack’s small Black population is imprisoned under conditions reminiscent of chattel slavery, a system that denied millions of Blacks the right to vote and exploited their labor, ensuring that many of them would remain in poverty long after emancipation.

Recently, I introduced Godine’s book and the Gerrit Smith story to H.O.L.L.A. (How Our Lives Link Altogether), a Harlem-based group of young, formerly incarcerated, Black men. None had heard of Timbuctoo or Smith but were immediately intrigued. As part of their community empowerment efforts, they have set their sights on acquiring land in the Adirondacks for farming and connecting to their African agrarian history. That mission is based on the teachings of Malcolm X who offered that, “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.”

Like Malcolm X, H.O.L.L.A. members were once incarcerated, some of them in Adirondack prisons. Their imprisonment also meant they were disenfranchised, much like the Black men in 1846 who sought to vote by accepting Smith’s gift of land.

“The Black Woods” has much for H.O.L.L.A. members and other readers for reflection. For the group, it may provide inspiration and hope to continue their search for Adirondack land. Their success may serve, in some measure, as a fulfillment of Gerrit Smith’s dream and those of Timbuctoo land grantees that went unrealized.

Alice Paden Green, executive director Center for Law and Justice in Albany, is the author of “Outsider: Stories of Growing Up Black in the Adirondacks.”

Photo at top: Alice Green outside her Essex residence near Lake Champlain. Photo provided

This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s Jan/Feb 2024 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Related Stories


The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com




5 Responses

  1. Linda Ramirez says:

    Thank you, Dr. Green and Amy Godine.
    For all your work! The history is fascinating!

  2. David Gibson says:

    Alice, your book review will be read far and wide, as should the book. I just finished it. How Amy Godine traced these men and women of The Black Woods is remarkable detective work, all tied together with powerful writing and equally powerful lessons about what is thought of as “authoritative” Adirondack, or any history..Amy’s is now an essential Adirondack, New York and National history..

  3. louis curth says:

    “The Black Woods” by Amy Godine promises a good read.

    Alice Paden Green’s comments here also add important context by showing how she, as a young black woman, growing up in the all-white Adirondacks during the 1950s & 60s, could have benefitted by knowing more about our black history of those earlier times.

    Similarly, perhaps those men and women from more diverse, mostly white, backgrounds who were born here, or choose to call the Adirondacks their home, might also benefit by learning about some of the distortions and omissions that were too often found in earlier versions of our history.

  4. David Bower says:

    I’ll be looking for this book to learn a wider understanding of Adirondack history. Thanks for covering this segment of your history.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *