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Documenting the true history of Black resistance

Marcus P. Nevius, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, spent a decade researching communities and economies created by escaped slaves in the United States

Marcus Nevius, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, documents the history of Black resistance in his first book, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp.
Marcus Nevius, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, documents the history of Black resistance in his first book, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp.Beau Jones/URI Momentum

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — For generations, children in American education systems have not been taught the whole, hideous reality about slavery’s part in the nation’s history and economy.

To reconcile fully with the past requires the philosophy of truth developed by consensus, says Marcus P. Nevius, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“Sometimes the truth is ugly, unflattering, and uncelebratory,” said Nevius, who also has a joint appointment in the Africana Studies program at the university.

In his first book, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856, Nevius documents the story of marronage (escape from slavery), the slavery-based economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp.

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The vast wetland of the swamp, which spans nearly 2,000 miles, is a stretch of marshland between Norfolk, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. White locals often called the area “uninhabitable,” and enslavers would send Black Americans to harvest timber from the swamp. Before long, small communities of self-emancipated slaves began to live and work in the Swamp and other remote regions, forming and reforming colonies, said Nevius, and leading to the development of resource-based economies that made the Black resistance communities possible.

Nevius traveled to the Great Dismal Swamp and spent a month researching his book, which he started working on nearly a decade ago as a master’s student at North Carolina Central University.

City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp is Macus Nevius's first book.  Nevius is a history professor at the University of Rhode Island.
City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp is Macus Nevius's first book. Nevius is a history professor at the University of Rhode Island. The University of Georgia Press

He found his book topic while sitting in a Latin American history course at Central, where they were discussing Black resistance in the Latin American context. He said he found that historians had been studying and writing about marronage, a form of Black resistance in which enslaved Africans would escape into different regions throughout the Caribbean. Eventually, the numbers of these formerly enslaved Africans would grow into communities where they would be able to defend their land. But, Nevius said, he was curious as to why there wasn’t as much scholarship about marronage in American history.

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“History as a profession is notoriously slow,” said Nevius. “I knew that it was part of the expectation when I chose to pursue it. It just takes a really long time to read what we have to read, to conduct the primary research we have to and be fortunate enough to travel to the places we need to go. And actually have the time to reflect upon that work.”

He added, “That’s really a process that I believe very deeply in. And even in this world, we need it.”

And while some school districts in America are just now beginning to change their history lessons to include the reality of Black resistance, Nevius said there needs to be a concerted effort to emphasize context and historical change over time.

“New histories and new lesson plans highlight the ways that slavery shaped our early nation, generating a legacy that carried into the 20th century,” said Nevius.

School districts, Nevius explained, have long followed what administrators, school committees and boards decide about which subjects “count” or have value.

“For too long, histories of Black culture have counted for little more than limited discussion during ‘Black History’ months, as opposed to being central to the way that we approach the history of the United States,” said Nevius.

Not teaching how the true history of Black resistance has shaped American policy, politics and policing has led to competing views of American history, Nevius said, and is tied to the political polarization the U.S. sees itself in today.

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“The history of vigilance and control of Black bodies, rooted in a fear of Black culture as unknown, is in some ways still manifest in antiquated approaches to policing today,” said Nevius. “But here, too, change is on the horizon.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.