Editorial – Dismal Swamp was refuge for fleeing slaves

Published 6:23 pm Friday, February 3, 2023

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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.

Perhaps the most inspiring of Suffolk’s numerous observations of Black History Month is the Great Dismal Swamp Underground Railroad Pavilion Tour, set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.  Tickets are just $7 for adults and $5 for seniors 60 and older, military veterans and children ages 8-12. The tour is not recommended for children younger than 8.

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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.

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.

After years of hard work to verify the legends, a pavilion was built a decade ago just inside the swamp’s entrance off Desert Road to commemorate the brave men and women who ventured into that inhospitable place in search of freedom and a new home.

Participants in the Feb. 18 tour will learn more about their story and surely be moved by the experience. Bus transportation to the swamp is available at 9:30 a.m. from the Suffolk Visitor Center, 524 N. Main St. The walking tour includes uneven and elevated surfaces, so comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate dress are recommended.