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.