A fitting tribute

Published 9:32 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2012

For anyone who has ever spent a few hours in the Great Dismal Swamp, it’s hard to imagine making a life there. But for escaped slaves during the 19th century, the alternatives could be far worse.

That’s part of what made the swamp an important stop along the Underground Railroad, the route taken by slaves who had escaped their awful lives of inhumane treatment and oppression throughout the South and who were headed to freedom in the North before and during the American Civil War.

Conditions in the swamp were surely brutal, but the maroons, as they were known upon their escape, were free there and could take steps toward new lives in the vast wilderness that existed in what is now Suffolk, Chesapeake and Northeast North Carolina.

Email newsletter signup

Through the years, many thousands of runaway slaves found refuge in that wilderness, aided in their quest for freedom by others who had gone before them and by abolitionists who believed that all men and women deserved to live free. Some stopped in the swamp on their journey north. Others made a home there.

Teams of archeologists have found everything from the imprints of cabins to tools left behind by American Indians and repurposed by the maroons. The evidence led not only to confirmation of the legends about the maroons but also to the ability of the swamp to be listed as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Finally, after five years of hard work to verify the legends, a pavilion has opened a short distance into the swamp off Desert Road to commemorate the brave men and women who ventured into that inhospitable place in search of freedom and a new home.

It’s fitting that as America continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war that was fought, in part, to free the slaves, there is finally a tangible testament to the role the Great Dismal Swamp played in helping so many of those slaves find refuge from the terrible lives they faced as other men’s property.