Abolitionists' museum proposed for CNYhttp://www.syracuse.com/search/index.ssf?/base/news-18/1109497146113260.xml?syrnemadHall of Fame
would be built in Peterboro, home of abolitionist Gerrit Smith.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
By Alaina Potrikus Staff writer
A tiny Madison County hamlet will open its doors to the world this week as planners launch an initiative they hope will make Peterboro a living history destination and boost the region's lagging economy.
This Saturday, organizers will announce the first class of inductees to the Abolition Hall of Fame, an attraction they hope will draw tourists from hundreds of miles to the hometown of famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith.
Great names in history, such as Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass, stopped in Peterboro on their reform tours in the mid-19th century.
"We have to take advantage of the opportunities we do have," said Jill Tiefenthaler,
who heads the Upstate Institute, an economic development think tank at Colgate University, and sits on the hall of fame's board.
"We are the right place for things like this," she said. "There is important history here; we can build on that strength."
Taking a page from the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, which now draws 15,000 tourists a year, Abolition Hall of Fame organizers envision creating a place where the history can come to life. Interactive exhibits on the anti-slavery movement and re-enactments are in the plans, along with an annual symposium on the life and times of Smith.
Peterboro, a quietcommunity of 200 residents in central Madison County, once was the hotbed of political abolitionism in the Northeast. An honor roll of reformers converged on Smith's mansion to plan activities, making the spot an important station in the Underground Railroad connections.
"Peterboro was a model integrated community," said John Stauffer, a professor at Harvard University who wrote "The Black Hearts of Men," a collective biography of abolitionists that centers around Smith. Stauffer also is on the Abolition Hall of Fame board.
"The landscape is comparatively unchanged," he said. "It almost recalls 19th century life when you go there. The memory of abolitionism is stronger in Upstate New York."
Indeed, the Central New York region is rich with sites along the Underground Railroad, where local abolitionists hid slaves attempting the perilous escape to freedom. But the region - and the country - lacks a site to tell the entire story of the movement, organizers say.
"It's a drive-by situation," said Jim Walter, executive director of Madison County Tourism. "Plaques say, 'This happened here.' "
Before the tourists can come, there's much work to be done. Home base will be the second-floor assembly hall of the Smithfield Community Center - the site of the inaugural meeting of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society - until a permanent home can be found for the museum's exhibits.
Even the temporary home needs work. That's the first objective for organizers: finding funds for construction.
Moving at a measured pace isn't something new for historians. The National Women's Hall of Fame was created in 1969 by the people of Seneca Falls who believed that the contributions of American women should be recognized.
It took 10 years before the idea had a permanent home. Organizers raised $166,000 to purchase the historic Seneca Falls Savings Bank in 1979, and renovated it to house the museum's exhibits and offices. To date, the hall has inducted 207 women. It has 3,000 square feet of exhibition space, leases another 1,500 square feet for a gift shop and is busting at the seams.
"We've outgrown our space," said Executive Director Billie Luis-Potts.
They'll fill the space fast in Peterboro as well. Portraits and plaques would highlight the lives of hall of fame inductees, the first round of which will be selected this weekend.
Abolition Hall of Fame organizers envision busloads of tourists converging on the village green and touring a collection of sites: including the Gerrit Smith land office and the Smithfield Community Center, which were named last June as stops along the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.
Colgate educatorshope to use the museum, about 18 miles away, to help students appreciate their new neighborhood.
"So many kids who come here from cities think this is a boring place," said Jaime Nolan, director of the university's Alana Cultural Center. "But there are amazing stories that come with this territory.
Colgate's Upstate Institute has taken a major role in the hall of fame effort, assigning an intern to create a museum Web site and a presentation for potential donors.
It will cost upward of $200,000 to upgrade the hall's temporary home and outfit the exhibits. The board hopes to cover the costs through grants and donations, a process that will take some time.
"The tourists won't be here next summer," said Dot Willsey, chairwoman of the Abolition Hall of Fame. "We want it to be well thought out and correct."