The still waters of the Great Dismal Swamp’s manmade canals wear a scrim of algae. Tree limbs wrestle with dense underbrush. Much of the ground is a soggy mess of muck, mud, and, occasionally, quicksand.
The drier, more solid areas, mounds called hummocks, are oases only if you find venomous snakes, black bears, and bobcats non-threatening. Then, there are the ubiquitous biting bugs: mosquitoes and yellow flies that swarm their prey and ticks that appear to drop from the sky. Paradise it is not, but for one URI professor, the rewards of such a place outweighed the aggravations.
Marcus P. Nevius, assistant professor of history, spent a month in the swamp researching his first book, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856, in what was a decade-long project begun when he was a master’s student. To say the nearly 2,000 miles of the Great Dismal Swamp, a tract of marshland situated between Norfolk, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, is inhospitable to human habitation is sugar-coating it—making the fact that small communities of escaped slaves lived and worked there all the more remarkable.
City of Refuge documents these communities of Black resistance, formally known as engaged in the historical phenomenon of marronage as they formed and reformed colonies of “fugitive” slaves in the swamp’s most remote reaches. Students in Nevius’ classes, which address slave resistance, slavery-based economies, and abolition spanning the years 1776 to1848, benefit from their professor’s contribution to this lesser-known aspect of American history well as the advantage of hearing how fieldwork happens in the context of historical research.
There’s more: students are introduced to a vocabulary that reframes how the history of slavery is taught. Slavery is discussed in terms of “unfreedom” and “enslavement.” The enslaved person’s escape is seen as an act of resistance, a “self-emancipation” rather than a running away. “Master” is replaced with “enslaver.” And there is the concept of “archival silence”—gaps in the United States’ historical record that exist because the record-keepers of the time were overwhelmingly white and because those Black Americans engaging in Black resistance kept their actions covert by necessity. These are the gaps scholars like Nevius highlight, address, and attempt to remedy with their work.
Enslavers compelled Black Americans to harvest timber, pine, and other types of trees, from the swamp. This was an example of a type of “extractive economy,” Nevius says, and one in which a group of land speculators, including George Washington, had a keen interest. These extractive economies made possible the Black resistance communities, which became temporary havens for the self-emancipated, Nevius explains.
On modeling the research process
For the students in his classes inspired to embark on long-term research projects of their own, Nevius offers his own experience as a model, alongside carefully curated reading lists meant to scaffold students’ interests while introducing them to seminal works. “I direct students’ attention to key primary sources, ones which undergird my understanding of history and which I see as foundational pieces for students to consider. So they engage directly with primary sources.
“And in reading primary sources and writing reflections about those while also reading historical monographs and articles, students can build the nuts and bolts of the type of research you need, the reflective research and intellectual work you need, to build a longer research paper.”
And there’s access to the experiences of the expert in the room.
“The idea is that not only do they have the opportunity to ask essentially any questions they like and get answers directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, but they also begin to consider the ways in which I sought to frame City of Refuge in relation to other scholars and in relation to topics we bring up in class.
“I seek to engage students not only in history as it was but in history as historians seek to tell it.”
When it works, and he sees his students engaged in spirited discussion, there is nothing better, Nevius says.
“At the end of one of my recent History of the American Revolution courses, students had to write a brief essay and give a presentation on it. We had a really clear space in that classroom to discuss our competing views,” he recalls. “And for an hour after that last class, several students stayed and talked about their ideas on the original intent of the Constitution and the history of the nation.
“It was one of the most enriching, organic conversations I’ve ever engaged in because of what we’d built over the course of the semester: a space of trust for one another.”