Many dozens across Rhode Island braved gale-force winds from tropical storm Jose to attend a presentation by Dr. Marcus Nevius on enslaved Virginians escaping to the Great Dismal Swamp in the 19th century. The event was sponsored by the Newport Middle Passage Project and Channing Church of Newport.
Dr. Marcus Nevius of the University of Rhode Island previewed his upcoming book, “City of Refuge” which details the daily lives of numerous men who lived hidden in the swamp. While escaping their owners, they still participated in economic activities alongside other enslaved laborers in work camps harvesting lumber, staves, and producing other goods for the regional economy. This allowed themselves to exchange labor for critical commodities required for survival in a wet, inhospitable environment.
With the advent of the civil war and emancipation, the swamp ceased to be a destination for those seeking self-determination. Yet family folklore and legend continued to live on about the role of the swamp.
Following the presentation, many black participants discussed their family’s emigration from post-civil war Virginia to Newport, Rhode Island, seeking opportunity and employment in the hospitality industry, and small businesses. This community of ex-Viriginians has established a long continuous history of contributions to Newport’s economy, education and in civil rights movements through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Racial relations are deeply rooted in every pore of our four-hundred-year history, both nationally and locally. Three hundred people were enslaved in North Kingstown, and by the turn of the 19th century newly free people of color faced a crossroad. Two woolen mills producing “Negro cloth” would diverge on racial preferences – one hiring skilled black spinners and weavers, the other excluding them.
The debate over integration and equality of labor had life-long consequences for all involved and had repercussions far beyond N.K. The racial choices mill owners made two centuries ago continue to echo in today’s Rhode Island.
“Slave Economy and Petit Marronage in VA and NC from 1790 to 1860.”
Dr. Marcus Nevius
History and Africana Studies at URI
Wednesday, September 20, 6:30 – 8:00 PM
Newport Public Library
Free and open to the public; simple refreshments will be served
Dr. Nevius will speak about his upcoming book on the “hidden” but thriving communities of escaped slaves and others in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and Virginia. This program is offered in conjunction with The Newport Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Marker Project.
Painting: “Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia” by David Edward Cronin, 1888
Dr. Nevius new book is under contract with the University of Georgia Press’s Race in the Atlantic World 1700-1900 series. It is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Petit marronage describes 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 slave’s economy describes the various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies.
In examining these themes in the Great Dismal, “city of refuge” engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s extractive economy. What emerges in “city of refuge” is a close study of the ways that American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. This is a story based in primary sources including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letterbooks 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.