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"Ghosts of Mabee Farm" documentary tells a story of slavery in Schenectady County

A film poster for "Ghosts of Mabee Farm"
Schenectady County Historical Society
A film poster for "Ghosts of Mabee Farm"

The Schenectady County Historical Society on Saturday will premiere a new short film that tells the story of three enslaved people who lived in Rotterdam in the 18th Century.

“Ghosts of Mabee Farm,” a 30-minute documentary produced by the Schenectady County Historical Society and filmmaker George Paul, seeks to tell a fuller story of the Rotterdam historic site.

Schenectady County Historical Society Executive Director Mary Zawacki says one building at the Mabee Farm, the oldest home in the Mohawk Valley, is a remaining direct link to slavery in New York. The structure, built in the 1760’s and used as housing for slaves on the farm, is called the Brick House.

“Because those stories are often difficult to find – enslaved people didn't usually leave written records or were able to write their own histories – having this house is a tangible connection to their stories, and it helps us to kind of learn a little bit about their lives and connect people to their lives,” said Zawacki.

A fundraising push to help save the Brick House gained the attention of Paul, a local videographer.

Paul, an aspiring filmmaker, saw an opportunity to help tell the story of the Mabee Farm, and to get some experience working on a film set.

“So, I offered them an option to collaborate on a documentary that will hopefully help raise funds to repair the structures there. And then in return, I get to learn more about camerawork, about directing, and add something to my portfolio,” said Paul.

According to Zawacki, the Schenectady County Historical Society has the names of eight enslaved people who lived at the Mabee Farm. Three are featured in the film.

“You have a woman named Bate, who was a young mother, she moved to Mabee Farm around the time of the American Revolution with her 1-year-old child. You have a man named Jack who lived at the Mabee Farm for a long part of his life enslaved. And you have a man, a young man named Cato, who lives there, towards the end of slavery in New York state, actually. And what's interesting about him is we have records that indicate he tried to self-emancipate, or run away, find freedom, but ultimately, was captured and brought back to the Mabee Farm,” said Zawacki.

Slavery officially ended in New York in 1827.

Paul says as the film moved into pre-production, an all-volunteer cast and crew started to come together.

“Everything just built up into a somewhat professional, for lack of a better word, production,” said Paul.

“The Ghosts of Mabee Farm” film will premiere Saturday at 2 p.m. at Mabee Farm during the Schenectady County Historical Society’s annual meeting. The premiere will be free to attend, and those who cannot see it in person can see it on the historical society’s YouTube channel. Again, Zawacki…

“It’s important because obviously, you still have a lot of New Yorkers today who are descended from people who were enslaved. So, it's a very real, personal connection. But also, you can't leave them out when you're telling the story of New York or the people of New York. The labor that they did is what built our state, is what built those communities in the Colonial period and following the Colonial period. They worked on farms, they worked in houses, they were indispensable for what would become New York state,” said Zawacki.

Meantime, Paul says he’s already reached out to other local historical societies to tell more New York stories.

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Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.