Encounters With Ghosts on Georgia’s Golden Isles

Stories of slave revolts at once inspire and sadden me. Not long ago, I read that some enslaved Black people who managed to escape plantation life headed into the treacherous swamps of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida instead of fleeing north on the Underground Railroad. Some wound up in the Okefenokee Swamp, or “Land of the Trembling Earth.”

Browsing Google, I came across an excerpt of the historian Sylviane A. Diouf’s book, “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons”: “Seclusion, not distance,” she wrote, “was in most cases the determining factor in the settlement in the hinterland.”

I decided to go to the swamp the following morning. The 90-minute drive took me deeper into a stretch of rural America, a land of farmhouses, pickup trucks and quaint main streets.

I arrived at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge around noon, purchased a $28 ticket, and within minutes I was on a schooner with a few other tourists on a 90-minute guided tour. The swamp, according to our guide, is geologically about 10,000 years old. Floating through the still, shallow waters beneath a canopy of cypress trees and Spanish moss, I learned many things from our guide: that the swamp, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, spans some 438,000 acres; that it’s home to 13,000 alligators, all sorts of rare and endangered birds, turtles and other wildlife. I also learned that our guide didn’t know much about this swamp providing refuge for escaped slaves. I pressed a bit, but my inquiry drew only a polite smile, followed by trivia about the waxy yellow plants we were motoring past:“They’re called ‘neverwet’, and you can guess why.”

While historical records are sketchy, archaeologists say that hundreds, perhaps thousands, settled in the swamps of the Deep South, including the Okefenokee, from the late 1600s to the Civil War. Most were Native Americans seeking refuge from the colonial frontier, but over time came escaped slaves, white outlaws and Civil War defectors. They lived in elevated shacks; many subsisted off stolen livestock. Looking out over the quiet swamp, its waters dark and teeming with alligators, I could scarcely imagine the thirst for freedom that would lead those people to make this backwater their home. I left, mesmerized by their stealth and resistance.

Traffic back to St. Simons was light. Still, the drive seemed to take forever. I was tired and hungry, but reluctant to pull into any of the small towns along the way. I decided to hold off eating until dinner, when I headed over to Mr. Shuck’s Seafood in Brunswick, a laid-back, Black-owned eatery about 30 minutes inland. As I approached, I felt an instant familiarity: the urban vibe, the strip 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’ve ever had. Sipping beer, I looked around and appreciated this lively pocket of Blackness surrounding me.

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