Under the Freedom Tree


Taut free verse tells the little-known story of the first contraband camp of the Civil War—seen by some historians as the "beginning of the end of slavery in America." One night in 1861, three escaped slaves made their way from the Confederate line to a Union-held fort. The runaways were declared "contraband of war" and granted protection. As word spread, thousands of runaway slaves poured into the fort, seeking their freedom. These "contrabands" made a home for themselves, building the first African American ...

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Taut free verse tells the little-known story of the first contraband camp of the Civil War—seen by some historians as the "beginning of the end of slavery in America." One night in 1861, three escaped slaves made their way from the Confederate line to a Union-held fort. The runaways were declared "contraband of war" and granted protection. As word spread, thousands of runaway slaves poured into the fort, seeking their freedom. These "contrabands" made a home for themselves, building the first African American community in the country. In 1863, they bore witness to one of the first readings of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South—beneath the sheltering branches of the tree now known as Emancipation Oak.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In staccato verse, VanHecke (Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’) illuminates an absorbing slice of Civil War history: runaway slaves’ establishment of a settlement in newly seceded Virginia. In 1861, three slaves—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—escape by boat from a Confederate camp, “Away/ from Southern soldiers/ who would/ own them,/ work them,/ beat them,/ sell them,/ keep them slaves forever.” The three men land at a Union camp whose commander declares them “contraband of war” and refuses to return them to the Confederates. They and hundreds of other runaways who subsequently arrive in “Slabtown” work for the Union army and build two camps. Missionaries educate the children under the branches of the tree now known as the Emancipation Oak, where, in the story’s triumphant finish, a boy reads the Emancipation Proclamation. Ladd’s (Oprah: The Little Speaker) evocative and subtly textured acrylic, pastel, and colored pencil art reflects the evolving tenor of the story as uncertainty gives way to hope. An extensive author’s note delves deeper into this immersive true story of courage and grit. Ages 6–9. Illustrator’s agent: Lori Nowicki, Painted Words. (Jan.)
Children's Literature - Lois Rubin Gross
Just in time for Black History Month, this "footnote" to history is fleshed out with a free verse retelling accompanied by full-paged, art-quality pictures in acrylics, pencil and pastels. At the start of the Civil War, many slaves were sent by Southern masters to do back-breaking work for the Confederate Army. Days after Virginia's secession from the Union, three slaves fled across Hampton Harbor to shelter with the Union Army under Colonel Charles Mallory. Here, readers get an excellent lesson in how laws can be parsed for the benefit of certain groups. Days earlier, the escaped slaves would have been subject to return under the Fugitive Slave Act. However, once Virginia seceded, Colonel Mallory was able to declare the slaves to be "contraband of war" and take possession of them. As word of this clever interpretation circulated, hundreds more slaves worked their way north to Hampton, Virginia. There, Contraband Camp was formed, a shantytown in a grey area between "free" and "slave." Most contraband people worked for the Union Army in the same manner they had once worked for the Confederates, but they also created a society with business transactions, farming, and—above all—education, which was formerly forbidden to them as slaves. Susan VanHecke's verse tells the story in a skeletal style. To read the full, utterly engrossing story, readers will need to read a prose backmatter account and, perhaps, follow up with suggested readings. However, there are points that the poem brings out dramatically, such as the status of enslaved humans ("Chattel. Persons as possessions. Owned and used like, cows, pigs, dogs"). The sharp, staccato rhythm of the verse lends itself to oral interpretation. Reading, now a skill acquired by freed children, is demonstrated when a child shares the Emancipation Proclamation with the camp while under the Emancipation Oak. This is a tale of resistance powerfully told. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross
Kirkus Reviews
In 1861, three slaves escape from Confederate Virginia and find freedom. When their owner demands their return under the Fugitive Slave Act, Union Gen. Frank Butler declares that since Virginia has just seceded, the men are "contraband of war." Many other escaped slaves join them and build a community called Slabtown. A year into the war, another town called Grand Contraband Camp arises from the ruins of Hampton, Va. While former "chattel" spend their days working for the Union Army, their evenings are devoted to learning letters and numbers from missionary teachers standing under a live oak. The year 1863 brings the Emancipation Proclamation, read aloud under what the community calls the Freedom Tree. A precedent was set as, according to the author's note, the land grew into Hampton University. The Emancipation Oak, that Freedom Tree, is now part of a National Historic Landmark District. VanHecke's free-verse narrative is compelling, informative and emotive, telling the story by year from 1861 to 1863. Ladd uses acrylic and pastel paints with colored pencils to present a realistic depiction of events, the danger that the men faced while escaping and the jubilation felt as they listened to the words that freed them. A valuable addition to the expanding canon of books on slaves escaping to freedom. (bibliography) (Informational picture book. 6-10)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580895507
  • Publisher: Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 379,224
  • Age range: 6 - 9 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan VanHecke is the author of Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills, 2011), an ALA Notable Children’s Book; and An Apple Pie for Dinner (Marshall Cavendish, 2009), as well as several books for adults. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

May moon gleams bright as
Colonel’s buttons.
Three slip out unseen. Frank,
Shepard scramble down the sandy bank,
hearts drumming,
eyes darting,
knees trembling.
Weathered skiff bobs in rustling rushes.
Quick now, and quiet!
Stars hold their breath and so do the three,
four miles from the old oak tree.
Oars dip,
no sound,
silver ripples.
Steal away now,

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