Ecologies of Resistance: The Underground Railroad Ethnobotany Project

The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber, 1893 (Cincinnati Art Museum/ Wikimedia)

“Gone are the century-old definitions of the Underground Railroad dominated by images of shivering, frightened fugitive slaves. Fading away are the biased images of solitary men, criminalized for escaping slavery, usually on foot, and aided by sympathetic White abolitionists working within a loosely organized network dominated by kindly Quakers.” –Cheryl Janifer LaRoche.

The above passage from Cheryl Janifer LaRoche’sFree Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: Geographies of Resistance (2014) is particularly fitting for the engagement that follows. The Underground Railroad Ethnobotany project is a nascent framework for investigating and interpreting ethnobotanical agency among freedom seekers at the site of the Guilford College Woods, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a well-known “station” in the Underground Railroad network. Guilford College was founded by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1837. Uncomplicated historical narratives centering the abolitionist heroics of “kindly Quakers” have, until recently, “written African American agency out of one of the central episodes of their historical being,” as LaRoche asserts (10). This tendency has recently been challenged from within a small liberal arts college reckoning with this past, through an institutional lineage of critical scholarship and student engagement, as well as multi-institutional collaboration through the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium. This work contributes directly to the destabilization of such stories through its insistence on the agency of freedom seekers and their free black accomplices, people whose names have been mostly invisible in the “century-old definitions” of the Underground Railroad.  A recent manifestation of these efforts is the dedication, on March 25, 2022, of a historical marker commemorating the legacy of Lavina Curry, who as free black woman employed as a washerwoman at New Garden Boarding School (becoming Guilford College in 1888), used her husband’s “free papers” to aid at least fifteen unfree men in their refusal to live as the property of another.  

The Underground Railroad Ethnobotany project is a parallel public intervention, one that similarly seeks to challenge the “images of shivering, frightened fugitive slaves,” in this instance, through the multi-stranded legacy of ecologies of antislavery resistance and the associated botanical agency asserted by freedom seekers, gained through collective experience and struggle within the greater African diasporic community in the Americas. To begin, however, it should be said that this is not to suggest that freedom seekers were never frightened, nor does their deep knowledge and understanding of wild plants and animals suggest they never felt the pangs of hunger. Like LaRoche’s geographies of resistance, wherein “landscape, terrain, landforms and natural shelters, as well as settlements and houses” (2) form a palimpsest of known landmarks that freedom seekers actively and expertly navigated along escape routes, ecologies of resistance indicate the exercise of knowledge and agency at the more intimate species level. Human-plant solidarities formed in historical relationships and deployed in acts of refusal become one of many autochthonous tools in the enactment of what Katherine McKittrick (2013) calls a “differential mode of survival.” Such a mode, McKittrick explains, “must be understood alongside complex negotiations of time, space, and terror” and the “interlocking workings of dispossession and resistance” (3). Through understanding ecologies of resistance as negotiated spaces of freedom and agency, we can begin to see counter-histories forged in partnership with other species, comprising a reservoir of eco-cultural resourcefulness available to freedom seekers.

A deep knowledge of gastronomic and medicinal properties of plants (combined with hunting, trapping, and fishing skills) constituted a major instrument of survival and resistance (“survivance,” to borrow Gerald Vizenor’s phrase) for freedom seekers traversing the natural ecosystems along routes of the Underground Railroad. This knowledge was accumulated over two hundred years of adapting the flora and fauna of the Americas to the ethnobotanical systems of African-descended peoples. While this occurred in part through extended interactions with the Native American populations, it was also facilitated through translating North American flora through the lens of preexisting African ethnobotanical understandings. As Judith Carney’s work (2003) points out, several genera of plants are common to both Africa and the Americas, and as such would have been identifiable to enslaved peoples newly arriving in the latter. Furthermore, through the Columbian Exchange initiated a century before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, peoples of West Africa would have been familiar with many New World crops and weed species from direct interaction and experience.

The ethnobotanical praxis of freedom seekers had its antecedents in maroon subsistence systems and in the provision grounds of enslaved communities. Maroons, runaway enslaved peoples, often located their free settlements in harsh and agriculturally marginal peripheral ecologies, including mountainous areas, swamps, and deep forests. They could of course maintain that precarious freedom only if they could take care of their own subsistence needs. This they did with decided expertise and elegance, as the work of Carney & Rosomoff (2011) demonstrates. In the Caribbean and Brazil, livestock often played a key role, but so too did a complex mixture of crops (of both African and American origins) and wild plant foods and medicines. As Carney & Rosomoff assert, “The synthesis of knowledge systems from the Old and New World tropics, initially forged in plantation food fields and then adapted to swamps, jungles, and mountains of their secluded refuges, was indispensable for maroon efforts to remain free” (98). This is analogous to what archaeologist Daniel Sayers (2016), in studying the historic maroon communities of the Great Dismal Swamp, straddling the present border of North Carolina and Virginia, calls a “Praxis Mode of Production.” This mode of wresting sustenance from the margins of the plantation world is constitutive of a constellation of counter-plantation strategies that stood in opposition to the capitalist market values of a plantation system that reduced bodies and ecologies alike to logics of exploitation and extraction.

Swamp and mountain settlements offered an opportunity to reassert generative multi-species entanglements–ecologies of resistance–in which “persons . . . gained agency by combining with ecological forces” (Allewaert 2013: 30).  Telescoping between the micro and macro levels, between “complex negotations of time, space, and terror,” landscapes and their plant assemblages constituted spaces in which to engage in the “praxis mode of production,” a practical application of knowledge and skill that served simultaneously as a habitus of freedom. Defining these embodied and emplaced entanglements, Hosbey & Roane (2021) “locate ongoing shared cultural histories of resistance through the matrix of Black ecologies in ‘untamed’ spaces. In swamps and in forests, the enslaved formed a fleeting Black commons, whereby they used their unique knowledge of the landscapes and waterscapes to extend a fugitive and transient freedom” (70).  To these “untamed spaces,” closer to the core of the plantation system, we might also add what great Jamaican scholar Sylvia Wynter (1971) calls the “dual relation” of plantation and provision ground, where the latter served as yet another site of inter-species resistance. There, as Wynter writes, the “culture [of the plot, or provision ground] recreated traditional values — use values. This folk culture became a source of cultural guerilla resistance to the plantation system” (100).

The online “micro-site” accompanying the Senator John Heinz History Center’s exhibit, From Slavery to Freedom, explores utility of these knowledge systems and skills as they served freedom seekers engaged in a complex praxis of self-liberation along the Underground Railroad network. Chapter five of the exhibit site, titled “Surviving Off The Land,” examines some specific human-plant relationships, but more generally presents evidence for ethnobotanical agency as a tool of resistance. Indeed, the authors write, “Our findings proved that there exists the skills and knowledge of plants, flora, and the environment to be a factor in the quest for freedom. It also strengthens the notion that black agency played a major part in the freedom seeker experience and that these brave souls were not totally dependent upon white help to find freedom.” 

The Underground Railroad Ethnobotany Project at Guilford College is an effort to bring these strands of evidence and analysis together, to map this larger body of work on African-diasporic ethnobotany in the Americas onto the college’s 240-acre mixed forest preserve, a stretch of woods that freedom seekers actively traversed between 1819 and the end of the Civil War. In their common passage through these woods, many would have deployed the kinds of botanical agency discussed here, enlisting familiar plant allies in the service of their efforts toward freedom. The project, now in the early planning stages, will incorporate an ethnobotanical inventory of known ethnobotanical species, supported by historical and archaeological research conducted by students and faculty mentors, to produce exhibits and interpretive signage to complement the college’s already existing Underground Railroad Educational Trail. Through such work, we hope to continue recent efforts to make legible and celebrate the strength, perseverance, intelligence, and skill exercised by freedom seekers in their refusal to accept conditions of oppression and unfreedom. One of the tools through which this refusal was realized was an active deployment of the very ethnobotanical knowledge that this project hopes to make visible through the preservation and interpretation of this legacy of inter-species resistance.         

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Tony N. VanWinkle

Tony VanWinkle is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at Guilford College.