Mini-Grant Report: Race, Revolution, and the Great Dismal Swamp

This past fall my students and I welcomed two guest lecturers to my class on African American History to 1865. Jeremy Williams (Johns Hopkins) led a session on Race and Revolution, while Dr Marcus Nevius (Rhode Island University) spoke on his award-winning book City of Refuge. Both visits were supported by a CfT mini-grant.

Jeremy Williams’s lecture on Race and Revolution was an opportunity to explore the following central focus questions: How has the American government, American broader society, and/or American people reconciled race and revolution? How does your knowledge of slavery in the United States affect the way you understand race? Do the history of slavery and African American people in the US affect the way that you view patriotism? Why or why not? What parallels do you see between the concept of race/revolution of the 1700s and our present-day state of race and politics? The class wrestled with these questions through the exploration of the 1619 podcast, small group discussion and participation in a spectrum activity. 

Dr. Nevius’ presentation was based on his award-winning book, City of Refuge. The book is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. Petit marronage was a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The vast wetland in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in particular was tough terrain, considered uninhabitable territory at this time. Once in the Dismal, former slaves who had endured the difficulties of the Underground Railroad engaged in various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies and helped to create a sense of community. 

In his examination of life, commerce, and social activity in the Great Dismal Swamp, Dr Nevius engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s early nineteenth-century extractive economy. City of Refuge is a close study of the ways that American maroons shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. It uses a wide variety of primary sources—including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letter-books and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies—to examine how American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants created and sustained communities under extraordinarily difficult geographical and social circumstances.

Anthony Donaldson Jr, History

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