Beyond Civil Rights Movement-era sit-ins, North Carolina has never been known as a hotbed of political resistance, but a new book by local authors unearths a hidden history to challenge that narrative.
As an early governor of Virginia wrote, "North Carolina is and always was the sink of America, the refuge of our renegades: and till in better order it is a danger to us." We learn this and much more in Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South (AK Press; 280 pp.), by Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, which has the last in a series of release readings at So & So Books in Raleigh on June 20.
The work took root three years ago when the anarchist authors included "inspiring stories of resistance and revolt" in a small zine. The more they looked, the more they found—enough to counter what they view as a "stale" progressive history that ultimately serves to preserve an oppressive state, as they told the INDY in an email interview.
INDY: Can you tell us about the "maroons" and the culture of resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp?
SARALEE STAFFORD AND NEAL SHIRLEY: The Great Dismal Swamp was originally a territory covering almost 2,000 square miles on both sides of the North Carolina/Virginia border. From the early-18th century through the end of the Civil War, the swamp was a refuge for overlapping, decentralized yet permanent communities of escaped European indentured servants, Indians, and West African slaves. These settlements became more Black as the young American economy imported more slaves.
Rather than just using the swamp as an avenue for escape, fugitives also used it as a site from which to attack surrounding plantations through cattle rustling, arson, the assassination of overseers and aiding in the escape of other slaves. Maroons also waged larger-scale guerrilla warfare against both pro-slavery American forces during the Revolutionary War and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Several insurrectionary conspiracies that involved hundreds, if not thousands—including planned attacks on Norfolk and Richmond—have been linked to the swamp. Some historians, such as Herbert Aptheker and Hugo Prosper, have made the case that the maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp made a fundamental contribution to a slave culture of escape and rebellion, which itself helped to destabilize the plantation economy.
What is North Carolina's role in this history?
North Carolina has been home to a number of interesting experiments in resistance and protest beyond the maroons: the early Regulator Rebellion against the British aristocracy, the underground network of deserters during the Civil War called the Red Strings, the Depression-era strikes in the mills of the Piedmont, the post-World War II armed self-defense of Robert F. Williams, the early sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement and the later prison riots at Raleigh's Central Prison and Correctional Center for Women. These revolts have been interpreted or ignored based on how intelligible or threatening they appear to the historian's project.
Nothing about these inspiring revolts is necessarily unique in the South, but some aspects of North Carolina's development render it different than Virginia and South Carolina. The Albemarle Sound, in particular, was settled not by English-loyal Planters, but instead by an autonomous community of fugitive Africans and Europeans who escaped from other colonies to band with Tuscarora Indians. That resistance to Virginia and South Carolina's early plantation capitalist model provided fuel for the Quaker and Tuscarora Wars of the early-18th century, as well as context for the still-charming designation of North Carolina as "a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit."
The early resistance to colonization and slavery by indigenous people, alongside fugitive Africans and indebted Europeans, posed a crisis that continued to threaten the legitimacy of whiteness, bondage and land ownership through the Civil War. While their efforts to cauterize the growth of plantation society in North Carolina did not succeed, their legacy lives on, from the Lumbees who fought the Klan out of Robeson County to the current rage over police killings of black and brown youth across the country.
How did you get into this project?
Part of our motivation was our joy and curiosity at finding these inspiring stories of resistance and revolt that we had heard little to nothing of before. They often broke sharply with stale narratives we were accustomed to. We are constantly told that the rebellions of the past were to secure citizenship, rights, democracy, better conditions and a host of other demands that lead us back into the state or capital's lengthening arms. Based on the accounts of those who participated in or witnessed the episodes we cover, we believe this is a distorted, myopic conception of the freedom many were fighting for.
Take the example of the '70s revolt at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. A progressive labor narrative would tell us that women no longer wanted to do unpaid domestic labor in prison, and so they went on strike to get better conditions around those particular grievances. That logic marginalizes the crux of the conflict: the social institution of prison itself. We try to expose the limitations of progressive narratives by highlighting the actions and words of prisoners themselves, which demonstrate a greater and more eternal desire—one of destroying prison entirely and transforming themselves.
Memories and lessons of the past have to be kept alive, but not merely those that are most convenient or safe. One way to spark critical dialogue is by highlighting tensions that are actually relevant to those trying to destroy systems of oppression that continue to this day.This article appeared in print with the headline "Anarchy in the N.C."