PETERBORO, N.Y. (AP) – Squeezed between swamp and rolling pastureland, little more than a convergence of roundabout country roads, this upstate New York hamlet seems an unlikely home for a National Abolitionist Hall of Fame and Museum.

But Peterboro was a hotbed for the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century when famous freedom-fighter Gerrit Smith lived here.

“Political abolitionism got its start in upstate New York, and the events there were more significant in ultimately ending slavery, and in establishing the tradition of protest and reform in American history,” said John Stauffer, a professor of American Civilization at Harvard University, who wrote, “The Black Hearts of Men,” a collective biography on abolitionism.

As the National Park Service noted when it designated the Gerrit Smith Estate as a National Historic Landmark, a list of guests to Smith’s home in Peterboro reads like a “Who’s Who” honor roll of American history: Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a cousin).

“It’s thrilling to walk across the village green and think about all the great Americans who have walked the same steps,” said Dorothy Willsey, who chairs the local Abolition Hall of Fame Committee.

Located 30 miles east of Syracuse, in the rolling hills of Madison County, the hamlet of 200 is clustered around a large community square. Smith’s home was destroyed by fire in 1936, but his land office remains. A short distance away is the Smithfield Community Center, where the New York State Anti-slavery Society held its inaugural meeting in October 1835, and where the museum will go. The building, also a national historic landmark, is included on the newly created New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.

“This isn’t one of those places where somebody was just passing through,” said Cordell Reaves, the state coordinator for the Underground Railroad trail, which connects 25 sites.

“The anti-slavery movement was really sustained by the people who came there, and the events that took place there,” Reaves said. “New York’s role in the abolitionist movement is a story that needs to be told. It’s a great thing if they can help tell it to a wider audience.”

For more than three decades, Smith’s two-story country mansion was an important station in the network of Underground Railroad connections. Smith dedicated the use of his personal fortune, his home and his work in the political arena to the abolishment of slavery.

“He regarded the slaves as free men. They ate at his table. He did not hide his opposition to slavery,” said Norman Dann, a retired state college sociology professor who is on the Peterboro committee and has written extensively about Smith.

“There was a famous black minister (Henry Highland Garnet, the first black person to deliver a sermon before the U.S. House of Representatives) who said there were two places slaveholders could never come – Heaven and Peterboro,” said Dann.

Gerrit’s father, Peter Smith, made his fortune as a partner with John Jacob Astor in the fur trading business in the late 1700s. The elder Smith took his wealth to amass land holdings across upstate New York and the frontier.

Gerrit Smith gave away 120,000 acres to 3,000 former slaves so they could meet property requirements for voting. He did the same for as many as 500 poor, landless whites. It is estimated that Smith gave away more than $8 million over his lifetime.

Peterboro became an ethnically diverse crossroads and a model of integration for other American communities, said Stauffer.

There are a number of historical sites and museums across the country already dedicated to the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad, including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which opened last summer.

The Peterboro site will be a living history museum, Willsey said. There will be interactive exhibits on the anti-slavery movement and re-enactments, along with an annual symposium on Smith’s life. The museum also will include a historical research center.

The Peterboro committee recently received a state grant to begin renovations on the building. The community has been raising money for the project for the past 13 years through its annual Civil War Weekend, a popular summer festival featuring a skirmish re-enactment.

A panel of 33 scholars and historians in March selected the museum’s inaugural induction class – Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Tubman and Smith.

The Peterboro committee is hoping to mimic the success of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, a village of 9,300 about 40 miles west of Syracuse. In 1848, more than 300 women gathered there for the first Women’s Rights Convention.

In 1969, residents there banded together to create the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which draws about 15,000 visitors a year.

“There’s a period of historical recovery under way,” said Billie Luisi-Potts, executive director of the women’s hall of fame. “There has been so much new scholarship during the past 15 years about the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. I think their idea is very timely.”


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