In the swamp
Stories of slave revolts both inspire and sadden me. Not so long ago, I read that enslaved blacks who managed to escape plantation life made their way to the treacherous swamps of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida instead of fleeing to the north on the Underground Railroad. Some ended up in the Okefenokee Swamp, or “Land of the Shaking Earth”.
While browsing Google, I came across an excerpt from historian Sylviane A. Diouf’s book, “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons”: “Isolation, not distance,” she writes, “was in most of the cases the determining factor of the hinterland.
I decided to go to the swamp the next morning. The 90-minute ride took me deeper into a part of rural America, a land of farms, vans and quaint main streets.
I arrived at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge around noon I bought a $ 28 ticket and within minutes I was on a schooner with a few other tourists for a 90 minute guided tour. The swamp, according to our guide, is geologically about 10,000 years old. Floating in the calm, shallow waters under a canopy of cypress trees and Spanish moss, I learned a lot from our guide: that the swamp, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, stretches across some 438,000 acres; it is home to 13,000 alligators, all kinds of rare and endangered birds, turtles and other wildlife. I also learned that our guide did not know much about this swamp that served as a refuge for escaped slaves. I pressed a bit, but my question drew only a polite smile, followed by anecdotes about the waxy yellow plants we drove past: “They’re called ‘never wet’, and you can guess why. . “
Although historical records are sketchy, archaeologists say hundreds, if not thousands, settled in the marshes of the Deep South, including the Okefenokee, from the late 1600s until the Civil War. Most were Native Americans seeking refuge outside the colonial border, but over time came runaway slaves, white outlaws, and Civil War defectors. They lived in elevated cabins; many remained of stolen cattle. Looking out over the tranquil swamp, its dark waters teeming with alligators, I could hardly imagine the thirst for freedom that would drive these people to make this backwater their home. I left, mesmerized by their stealth and resistance.
Traffic to St. Simons was light. Still, the journey seemed to take forever. I was tired and hungry, but reluctant to stop in one of the small towns along the way. I decided not to eat until dinner, when I walked over to Mr. Shuck’s Seafood in Brunswick, a casual black-owned restaurant about 30 minutes inland. As I approached, I felt an instant familiarity: the urban vibe, the shopping malls, the racial diversity. Dinner was delicious: dish after dish of blackened shrimp, fried shrimp, catfish, garlic corn. I dipped it all in the best butter sauce I have ever had. Sipping beer, I looked around and enjoyed that bustling pocket of Darkness surrounding me.