Between Time and Timbuktoo


DeNeen Brown of The Washington Post reports that archeologists are uncovering interesting artifacts in the New Jersey town of Timbuctoo:

Timbuctoo was founded by freed blacks and escaped slaves in the 1820s. It was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name. The neighborhood still exists in the township of Westampton, N.J., about a 45-minute drive northeast of Philadelphia, an enclave of many acres, so tiny and tucked away that when you ask someone at the store two miles away, he tells you he has no idea where it is.

Timbuctoo has always been a secret kind of a place. Had to be, because it was part of the Underground Railroad. There are newer houses here now where some descendants of original settlers still live. But much of the physical history of Timbuctoo is buried underground. Based on a geophysical survey, archaeologists believe that foundations of a whole village of perhaps 18 houses and a church dating back to the 1820s lies beneath layers of dirt.

Brown writes that similar excavations are "booming across the country," and in the process are rewriting the history of race in America: "adding evidence of resistance, not just physical oppression; evidence of integration, not just segregation. They are, [scholars] say, unearthing evidence not only of lives endured in slavery, but also of whole communities of escaped slaves hiding in small, self-sufficient communities."

Christopher Fennell, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, says communities connected to old black towns are saying: "'Don't tell us about brutality in the past. Tell us about how African Americans overcame racism.' There is much more focus on free African Americans like Timbuctoo." Researchers are focusing, for example, on how blacks participated in the Underground Railroad. "The untold story," Fennell says, "is that it was really run by free and enslaved African Americans helping slaves to escape."

It's an interesting case study in the history of history—how different Americans in different times and places reinterpret the past. One set of historians isn't especially interested in racial oppression, so they tend to ignore or even excuse it. The next generation is deeply offended by that approach, so it highlights the ways whites have victimized blacks. Then another wave of scholars worries that the new narrative treats blacks as helpless victims, not as human beings able to act on their own behalf, and so we see studies that recognize the repression but also search for signs of black self-help and self-government. It's an appealing approach, though it too has its excesses. (When you celebrate the people who built places like Timbuctoo, you run the risk of romanticizing them, which in turn can lead to garbling the facts.)

At any rate I recommend the Post piece, which is filled with details about such settlements in different corners of the American landscape. One more quote before we go:

In New Mexico, archaeologists are unearthing a town called Blackdom, which was founded in 1901, by Frank Boyer, a black man who was said to have walked thousands of miles from Georgia to New Mexico to establish a town for black people.

"He wanted to create a place he could be free and he got other families to come join him," says Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the largest museum dedicated to African American history in the country. "The town existed for about eight years until the artesian spring vanished. They ran out of water, then they dispersed and went to other cities. Now there are foundations of some of the houses."

Some sites offer evidence of the business acumen of freed black men. In Illinois, archaeologists are unearthing New Philadelphia, one of the earliest towns in the country founded by a black man. In 1836, Frank McWorter, who was born into slavery, purchased his wife's freedom for $800 with money he earned from extra work in a mine. He then purchased his own freedom at $800 and went on to buy 42 acres of land in Pike County, Ill. McWorter subdivided the land, sold lots and used the proceeds to buy the freedom of 16 more family members.