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Units March 25, 2024

From Ndongo to Timbuctoo: Black Agency in Context



Lesson Summary: Students explore the power of narrative, learn about the free Black people who established farms in the Adirondacks through primary source exploration, and write their own drafts of local history. Downloads: Complete unit resources

This unit was created by the John Brown Lives! Hands on History team as part of the 2023 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across 5-6 class periods with an additional field trip day.


Students will...

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the importance of how a story is told and the impact of the narrator on the narrative. 
  • Develop a deeper sense of historical empathy with people from our local historical narrative, and will learn how to use that understanding in order to analyze other parts of our local historical narrative. 
  • Practice their skills in identifying different parts of a story.
  • Develop and submit a proposal to a local historical society.

Unit Overview:

This unit introduces students to an often mischaracterized, intentionally neglected chapter of Black history in the Adirondacks of New York State: the free Black people who established farms in the area known as Timbuctoo, which formed the impetus for the famed abolitionist John Brown to move to the area with his family. Timbuctoo was a name given to a portion of the three thousand 40-acre parcels granted to free Black families by abolitionist Gerrit Smith as a way to extend suffrage rights, following a New York State law requiring Black men to have $250 worth of land in order to vote. 

Students will first learn the broader context for this story of Black resistance through an arts-integrated study of the picture book Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. By beginning their unit with a picture of the full lives, culture, and joys of the ancestors of the narrator of Born on the Water, students will develop a sense of historical empathy with people who were kidnapped and enslaved. Students will then be guided to understand, in an age-appropriate and emotionally regulated way, the implications of the Middle Passage and the system of slavery and its many violences. They will then come to understand that, even after slavery was outlawed in New York State, its legacy persisted with laws that suppressed the Black vote and allowed slave catchers to kidnap free Black people for a profit. 

Studying the Black voting rights and land justice movement of Timbuctoo will pick up the theme of Black resistance and cultural preservation that is introduced in Born on the Water, and will also open up a discussion of what histories are told, and which are suppressed. As Amy Godine recounts in The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier, Alfred L. Donaldson’s History of the Adirondacks, published in 1921 and viewed as definitive  for at least eighty years, dismissed the movement thus: “The attempt to combine an escaped slave with a so-called Adirondack farm was about as promising of agricultural results as would be the placing of an Italian lizard on a Norwegian iceberg.” Godine then cites a variety of similarly racist and dismissive accounts of Timbuctoo, from a biography of Gerrit Smith to the state historical society, that blame the failures of the movement on the essential character of the Black settlers. 

There will also be opportunities for further cross-curricular programming as we are able to use the grounds of John Brown’s Farm to explore text and archaeological evidence that support the reframing of the story. Students will collaborate with their writing teachers to develop a proposed rewriting of the plaque about Timbuctoo at the Lake Placid Historical Society, which centralizes the narratives of John Brown and Gerrit Smith while incorrectly representing the Black settlers who moved north to the Adirondacks.

Educators who are unable to visit John Brown’s Farm will have access, through this unit, to multimedia resources related to the farm, and/or may use this unit to inspire explorations of local sites of Black resistance and liberation in their own communities.

The study of Born on the Water will be the first part of a deeper dive on how we contextualize stories. Some questions that will be asked will be:

  • How can we examine different ways of telling a true story? What genres speak to the past? How do they do so, and how do they do so differently?
  • How do you tell your own story? What skills do you need to do so? What information/ artifacts do you need to talk about your own story? 
  • Who can we write biographies about? What information do we need to know before we can start? Where can we find this information?
  • What do we know about the story of people in the Adirondacks? Who has told it in the past? Who tells it now? Who are the players, and whose voices were amplified and whose were decentralized? By what mechanisms did that happen? What kind of information is available? Who wrote it? What does that context do to a story?
  • How are people in the Adirondacks memorialized? What does that tell us about them, and about the people who did the memorializing? Whose voices are overly present, and whose are missing? Why did this happen?
  • How do the historical organizations in the Adirondacks talk about the historical and current inhabitants of the park?

Performance Task:

Students will collaborate with their writing teachers to develop a proposed rewriting of the plaque about Timbuctoo at the Lake Placid Historical Society Museum, to be drafted individually and revised collectively into one proposal. The plaque currently centralizes the narratives of John Brown and Gerrit Smith while incorrectly representing the Black settlers who moved north to the Adirondacks as unprepared and unskilled.


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