For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
They were called “maroons” — escaped slaves who lived hidden on the margins of settlements throughout the southern U.S. Until now, very little was known about these individuals and their communities across the American South. A new book explores how and where they lived, and what day-to-day survival meant for those who fled slavery.
- Sylviane Diouf Author, "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons;" historian; Curator, Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library
Book Trailer: “Slavery’s Exiles” By Sylviane Diouf
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey were called maroons, escaped slaves who lived hidden from slave masters across the Caribbean and Latin America. But little was known about maroons living here in the United States. In fact, there were maroons living across the American south. They survived alone or in communities on the margins of plantations and settlements, many defying slave hunters and disease. A new book explores where and how they lived and what day-to-day survival meant for those who fled slavery to live on their own terms.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Sylviane Diouf. She is the author of "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons." She's an award-winning historian and a curator at the Shomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Sylviane Diouf joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. SYLVIANE DIOUFThank you.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation. If you have questions or comments, give us a call. Were you aware of the history of independent communities of escaped slaves right here in Virginia or elsewhere in the South, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Can you talk a little bit about what maroon means and where the term comes from?
DIOUFWell, the term really comes from cimarron, which is a Spanish word which was used at the beginning for cattle which had wandered off of the farms. And by extension, it was used for runaway slaves. So you have cimarron in Spanish. You have marron in French and maroon in English.
NNAMDIAnd that, of course, is the basis for the English word maroon, period.
DIOUFExactly. The difference, though, it's kind of interesting, cimarron and marron were used for any runaway going anywhere. But maroon in English has been really used for people who settled in the west. But in the United States and as well as during the colonial era, maroon was really used for the big communities in Jamaica and Suriname. And here, people call the maroons actually outliers.
NNAMDIWhy are maroons not simply runaway slaves?
DIOUFWell, they're not exactly runaway -- I mean, some of them were, but runaway slaves really are people runaway to a specific destination, most generally to a southern city to pass as free or to the north or Canada or Spanish Florida. But maroons were people who settled in the wise. And that could be actually just the road. I mean, you know, rest -- close to their own plantation or a little further away. But they were not going -- you know, they were naturally running away. They were settling, you know, in the woods and the swamps.
NNAMDIYou did not set out to write a book on the maroons of the south so how did "Slavery's Exiles" come about?
DIOUFWell, actually I didn't set out to write a book. I just wanted to read about maroons in the United States. I had read a lot of books on maroons in Jamaica, in Cuba, in Brazil. And I was looking for the story of the American maroons and I couldn't find anything really. You know, just scattered references here and there, sometimes a chapter on one group or one area. And there was really nothing comprehensive in detail about who the maroons were, what they were doing, what they wear. And so I decided, well, let's try and write a book.
NNAMDIWhat areas of the U.S. did you look at and find evidence of the maroons?
DIOUFMostly Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana. And I also, you know, mention other cases in Alabama or Mississippi as they become -- you know, as they are relevant.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Sylviane Diouf. She is the author of "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons." She's an award-winning historian. She is currently curator at the Shomberg Center for Research and Black Culture at the New York Public Library. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you know about maroons here in the U.S. and elsewhere, 800-433-8850? Most people don't know about the communities that you have written about, even within scholarly circles. Why is that?
DIOUFWell, I think that, you know, for many people maroons means big far away communities waging wars, you know, like in Jamaica, Suriname. And so I think that -- actually, you know, when I was writing my book and I was looking with other scholars and I mentioned, you know, I'm doing a research on maroons in the United States. And everybody was saying, oh Florida, the Seminoles. And I said, no, no, no. Not Florida but, you know, Virginia and North Carolina.
DIOUFAnd because in these areas there were no, you know, nothing of that sort, you know, nothing of that kind of wars, then people didn't realize that there were maroons there. But for me what I looked at was really looking for individuals and groups and communities based on three criteria, living in the wilderness in secret and not being under any kind of external rule.
NNAMDIWell, I guess that's one of the reasons that these individuals and communities were hard to study was the very nature of their situation. They were hidden.
DIOUFExactly. They were completely hidden. And as I started the research I thought, well, you know, where am I going to find primary sources, because the goal was to be not seen, not heard. But actually, you know, I found a lot of sources and very varied sources as well, acts and other legal documents, petitions by cities and letters, official correspondence, (word?) books, travelers' accounts. Also I saw a lot of newspaper articles about them, runaway notices, very detailed, trial records of maroons, autobiographies and memoirs of former slaves. And I found a wonderful source which is the WP interviews.
NNAMDIAh, yes, we'll talk about that in a second. What was daily life like for the maroons you write about?
DIOUFWell, really their life was completely different from anything that they had known before. First of all, they did not have to work. And second, their life really started at night because they are to be -- you know, because they were living in secret, and many of them at the borders of plantations. Of course, you know, they had to be lying down during the day and going out at night. And what they did was to go back to the plantations to see their loved ones, you know, just for love and sympathy and everything, you know, that you have to -- you know, the kind of contact you have with your relatives and friends, but also to get food and to get information. That was really crucial for them, the movement of slave hunters, for example.
DIOUFAnd they also went back to the plantations to get whatever they needed from the fields and the henhouses and the big house and the storehouses. Those who lived further away from the plantations also went back at night, you know, to see their families and to raid plantations.
NNAMDIIt was a nocturnal life. Put on your headphones now please, because we're going to take our first call, and that would be Daniel in Silver Spring, Md. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELYeah, good afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood afternoon, Daniel.
DANIELYeah, this is a great and an interesting topic. And I was -- my question is, the same areas that she made mention in terms of the way the maroons lived, also we found the Gullah people who has direct connection with Sierra Leone. So I wasn't sure, did you -- was she able to find any information connecting to, you know, black communities from those same areas?
DIOUFWell, the Gullahs were really not -- I mean, there was, you know, this community which was not only from Sierra Leone. There were many different ethnicities forming the Gullah people in the sea islands. But, I mean, there is no real particular connection there. Maroons were very diverse. Some were Africans. They have one chapter on African maroons. And others were born here. And so there's no direct connection, if you will, but maroons were really just a wide variety of people throughout the south.
NNAMDIWhat is thought to have been the largest number of maroons who lived in the area between Virginia and North Carolina known interestingly enough as the great dismal swamp? Can you tell us a little bit about that area and why the maroons there were unique?
MR. HENOK TESFAYEYes. The great dismal swamp was really a huge, huge area -- you know, huge swampy place. And so it was easier, I mean, for people to hide there. The great dismal swamp was also a place of industry. You had cutting, you know, of timber, and the construction of a canal. But parts of the swamp remained completely not explored. And so you had maroons there living really without any contact with anybody else. But you also had maroons on the border of these industrial landscapes were actually working on the canal and for shingle (word?) and got money in that manner.
NNAMDIFolktales grew up around the people of the great dismal swamp. What was said about them?
DIOUFWell, the thing is, which is very interesting, is that people didn't know who they were. They had not seen there so a lot of tales, you know, came out of that. People imagining wild Africans, you know, with the hairy bodies and that kind of things. Now it's difficult to really find out who they were but we have information on them coming, for example, from the people who still were the children of those runaways and who are still living there after 1865.
DIOUFThey -- actually because they were in the heart of the swamp they were able to cultivate. They had these old farms. They raised animals. They -- most probably dressed, you know, with the raccoon skins, you know, that kind of thing. They had bark houses and boats. And, you know, they were living quite well it seems there.
NNAMDISo there were people who were living in what was then known as the great dismal swamp. And then among maroons there were apparently individuals and families who lived underground. Can you talk about what you found?
DIOUFYes. To me that was absolutely, I mean, some kind of extraordinary thing to see and try to understand. The people who lived at the border of plantations had to really disappear. They had to melt into the environment. So some, for example, lived inside trees, on top of trees, in caverns. But really, the (word?) housing of the maroons at the borderline was the cave. These already disappeared from the surface of the earth. They dug their houses underground.
DIOUFAnd for -- and some lived there for years, were the example of a man named Patseen (sp?) who lived in a cave with his wife and 15 children in Virginia. They did everything in that cave and they raised, you know, all their children. And they came out only after slavery ended. Those are -- you know, and I found those caves everywhere throughout the south. Some were really like nice little houses, you know, up to a certain point, but with furniture and stoves and long pipes that took the smoke away.
DIOUFSo the thing is that you can see, you know, the kind of ingenuity and creativeness, resourcefulness and determination of people who wanted to be free and were ready to sacrifice a lot. Living underground is kind of awful really, but they did.
NNAMDIWanted to be free and not found. I know it's difficult to generalize, since we're talking about a book -- your book that spans hundreds of years. But they lived very often very near to settlements and plantations. Can you talk about their relationship to those plantations?
DIOUFYes. The maroons exiled themselves. They took themselves out of society and out of the plantation. But at the same time they continue to engage the plantation world, the black world and the white world. They live -- many of them live near the plantations because they had relatives there and they wanted to continue seeing them. For them freedom was the freedom to be living near or with their loved ones. So there was -- you know, they continued to go to see them, to get, you know, food and other items from them.
DIOUFAnd, you know, there was this freedom. I mean, the community -- the enslaved community was crucial. They gave information. They gave help. And without that the maroons -- you know, the maroon way of life would have been very difficult to actually maintain otherwise. There was really a great solidarity between the woods and the plantation.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about "Slavery's Exiles." We're talking with the author of that book. She is Sylviane Diouf. The book is called "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American maroons." Sylviane Diouf is an award-winning historian and the curator of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at (800) 433-8850. Shoot us a tweet at KojoShow. Or email to Kojo@WAMU.org.
NNAMDIWhat do you know about maroons here in the U.S. and elsewhere. There are many folktales and myths around maroons. What have you heard? (800) 433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Sylviane Diouf. She is the author of the book "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons." We're taking your calls at (800) 433-8850. We got an email from Carrie in D.C., who writes, "I guess I always assumed that some slaves escaped and survived on their own. But I knew nothing about the existence of bigger communities. Was it possible that plantation owners and people in authority did not know about these settlements?"
NNAMDII'm glad she asked that question, because it's important to understand that the maroons you studied, in relation to the settlements and the southern plantations, in the book you describe in detail the landscape of an average plantation. Can you explain that for us now and explain to our emailer, Carrie, why that matters?
DIOUFWell, the -- one of the things that people don't really know today is that plantations were really surrounded by woods and swamps. And so, even at the time, one plantation could have a lot of woods around. And, you know, I'm just going to quote rapidly from Lewis Paine, a white man who spent six days -- six years in jail for trying to help a maroon. And he wrote, "There are large tracts of land covered with heavy timber, containing not only deep and almost impenetrable swamps, but caves, holes, shelving rocks and banks. In these, they secrete themselves during the day-time, venturing abroad only night..."
DIOUFAnd, you know, so you have this landscape of woods and swamps near the plantations as well as what I call the hinterland. And these form the maroon, what I call the maroon landscape. So you had the, what I call, the borderland maroons and the hinterland maroons. And I just want to...
NNAMDIYes, I'd like for you to talk about the borderland maroons, as you described them, and spaces of freedom that you say they occupied. Can you read about that for us?
DIOUFYes. I think that, you know, the -- I'm going just, you know, to read about the maroons' landscape. "The maroons' landscape was a place of exile whose settlers sought not only freedom but also self-determination. It was a dynamic site of empowerment, migrations, encounters, communication, exchange, solidarity, resistance, and entangled stores. It was also, of course, a contested terrain that slaveholders, overseers, drivers, slave hunters, dogs, militias and patrollers strove to control and frequently invaded."
DIOUF"Still, it was a space of movement, independence, and reinvention where new types of lives were created and evolved; where networks were built and solidified, and where solidarity expressed itself in concrete ways that rendered the maroons' alternative way of life possible."
NNAMDIThat independence that they sought made the dangers and sacrifices of living on the margins worthwhile for them.
DIOUFIt was. And, you know, the thing is that when runaways went to the north, they really severed all of their links to their families and loved ones. For the maroons, one of the reasons that they became maroon was to actually stay close to their families and friends. And so living in the wild, you know, dangerous way, a very risky way, was still for them, you know, much better than anything else.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. We go this time to Patricia in McLean, Va. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICIAI come from Middle Tennessee and there was a lot of literature about people in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee of color. And they were thought to be of a early people, perhaps related to this situation.
NNAMDII would turn your radio down because we're hearing the feedback from you, Patricia.
NNAMDIBut, care to respond to that, Sylviane? Middle Tennessee?
DIOUFI didn't really look, I mean, working into Tennessee as, you know, per se. You know, I was looking for areas where really we had a lot of information about the maroons. So I cannot really respond directly to this particular area.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Marvin in Washington D.C. Marvin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARVINMy ancestors -- I'm from the Dismal Swamp area. My ancestors were living there 500 years ago, before the English came. What are the Algonquian language roots of (word?) in the Dismal Swamp, because before the Africans escaped into the Dismal Swamp, I am sure there was Chowanokes, (word?) , other groups who also had escaped from colonization in the Dismal Swamp.
NNAMDIDid you find that there were others before the slaves that you are talking about? Of course, this book is focused on slaves who lived as maroons in order to be free. But I think he wants you to go a bit farther back than that.
MARVINBut they also had to learn from -- they also had to -- the Africans had to learn from the people who were already there.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to ask Sylviane if she knew anything -- if she researched anything about that.
DIOUFI didn't know it, but there were other communities before the Africans moved in. As mentioned, you know, my research is really about Africans and African American as maroons. So I did not -- it's not about Native Americans. But you are right. There were people there before the people that I study actually migrated there.
NNAMDIYou mention the Works Progress Administration, WPA. In the 1930s, the WPA interviewed over 2,000 formerly enslaved men and women and they offered a wealth of detail about the maroons' lives. Can you talk about that?
DIOUFYes. You know, it's fascinating, because those interviews, as you know, as you mentioned, more than 2,300, have been mined for a lot of different information, but not about maroons. And I was really surprised to find a lot of details there. People whose uncle or relative had been living at the borders of plantations, and those people had been visiting them in their cave and could describe, you know, how a cave is made. What kind of life people had there. Also, what I found very interesting is, you know, what kind of solidarity existed between the plantations and the people in the swamps and the woods.
DIOUFAnd also you have details there about when people got out of the woods, either because they were found or captured or went -- they left after slavery ended. And you have all those descriptions of how they look, what happened to them, and there is really, I mean, a wealth of information there, and very personal information.
NNAMDIOne volume on Virginia was very important to your research. Talk about that.
DIOUFYes. There are really 17 volumes which are online, you know, that people can just read on the website of the Library of Congress. There are also 41 volumes in libraries, you know, that you can find. But there's one book that you can find that you can buy, which is -- the title is "Weevils in the Wheat." And it's interviews of former slaves by African-American interviewers in the 1930s. And there is really a wealth of information there. It's a wonderful book.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier runaway slave ads, an important source of information. What did an ad typically include that would be interesting for a historian such as yourself?
DIOUFSo there are a lot of detailed information about the person, what they looked like, their age, but also where they're supposed to be going. Sometimes, you know, you have -- you can follow them because you have several ads for one person over the years. And they will tell you, well, you know, so-and-so was seen at such-and-such place last month. And then, a year later, you find that same person at some other place. And so you get a lot of information there.
DIOUFAnd, for example, for -- I followed a number of people, including African maroons, I could follow them from the slave ship to the woods and sometimes back to the plantations when they were captured, and then back to the woods when they escaped again.
NNAMDIYou also looked at court testimonies. What did you find there?
DIOUFYes, because they were -- there were some trials of maroons as well as the people who actually helped them. So those were very, very interesting because those were first-person narratives by people who had been maroons. And, for example, in Louisiana, there was a large community and people were captured and tried. And we have all the documentation in Spanish. There were also another large community of about 80 people in Georgia and South Carolina, and the second-in-command of this community was actually tried. And so we have his testimony and the testimony of other maroons from his group.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joe in Washington who said, "I grew up near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina. I came from a family of Quakers and was often told stories of my ancestors harboring escaped slaves in the early 19th century, with one even being killed for this by Confederate guerillas. In your guest's research, has she found any evidence of such instances and the influence of the large Quaker, Baptist and Methodist population in the area and the maroons' decision to settle in that area?
DIOUFYou know, the thing is that really I studied the maroons themselves and the maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, where really most of them, within the, you know, the confines of the swamp, at the heart of the swamp. They were not helped by anybody. And those who were working on the canal or making shingles were also not in any kind of contact with, kind of, the world at the margin of the swamp. So, you know, for some runaways, yes. You know, the possibility of being helped by people at the border is important. For maroons, it's generally a little bit different.
NNAMDIMaroons were often portrayed as bandits by both their contemporaries and by modern historians. And maroons were supposed to have played a part in various slave conspiracies and insurrections. What are some of the common myths around that? And what was, in fact, the reality?
DIOUFI think that's, you know, at the time, just to kind of criminalize their aspiration, many maroons were described as being just bandits. Now, the proof of the matter is that they raided plantations, you know, generally for, you know, for food and other items that they could not get or produce. But only a minority of them were actual bandits. And I, you know, I have a chapter on those: horse thieves, for example, and burglars and others. Now, in terms of conspiracy and insurrections, there's also kind of this myth of maroons fighting the system, wanting to abolish slavery, you know.
DIOUFAnd we don't really see that. People, as I mentioned, exile themselves from their society. And already...
NNAMDIBut you did describe another maroon community that faced down a militia in the swamps of the Savannah River. Can you talk briefly about that?
DIOUFYes. So this was really, you know, like most maroons and most maroon communities, they didn't want to have frontal fights. They didn't start any kind of, you know, insurrection. But they were attacked. And when they were attacked, they fought back. Now they fought back up to a certain point. You know, usually, and not only in the United States, but in the rest of the Americas, maroons avoided frontal contact, because they were generally under gunned. So they put up a fight so that most of them could escape.
DIOUFAnd, but, their preferred tactic was to disappear. And that's what they usually did.
NNAMDIWhat happened to the maroons after emancipation?
DIOUFSo, some continued to stay in the woods during the Civil War, waiting for the outcome, and left the woods and the swamps with the Union Army. Some actually enrolled in the Union Army. And in the Dismal Swamp, some of them actually were probably -- it was said that some of them continued to live there.
NNAMDIBecause they were unaware that slavery had ended.
DIOUFUnaware of that, and in other parts as well. There are the (word?) of people saying, well, you know, so-and-so was found after, because they had no contact with anybody and didn't know what was going on.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time. You're a historian, also curator at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. Tell us a little bit about what you do there.
DIOUFAt the Schomberg Center I work on exhibitions, digital exhibitions as well as physical exhibitions. And one of the reasons that, you know, we are having, you know, the fact of all those digital exhibitions is to kind of fill the gap between the scholarship and what the general public knows. And with digital exhibition, we are able to reach the entire world.
NNAMDIWell, we did an interview with the head of the Schomberg some time ago. I guess we'll have to put a link to that interview so that people can hear what it's all about. Sylviane Diouf is the author of "Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons." She's an award-winning historian and a curator at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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