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Conraband Slaves of Civil War the Focus of New Children's Book, UNDER THE FREEDOM TREE




More details on my most recent book sale (can't wait for this one—London Ladd, the illustrator, is brilliant!):

A new children's book, Under the Freedom Tree, will bring to light a long overlooked aspect of Civil War history, the contraband slaves who risked their lives to seek protection behind Union lines, labored for the Union cause, and launched the beginning of slavery's end. Written by Susan VanHecke and illustrated by London Ladd, Under the Freedom Tree will be issued February 1, 2014 by Charlesbridge (www.charlesbridge.com), an award-winning publisher of fine children's books.

On the night of May 23, 1861, three slaves held by Confederate forces constructing artillery emplacements in what is now Norfolk, Virginia escaped, stole a skiff, and rowed across the harbor of Hampton Roads to the Union-held Fortress Monroe. It was a bold and courageous act; the men risked brutal, even fatal, punishment for the hope they saw on the other side

Had they escaped days earlier, they would have been returned under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. But Virginia had just seceded and was no longer a part of the United States. Thus the Union commander at Fortress Monroe, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, declared the slaves enemy "contraband" and refused to return them to the Confederates.

As word spread, hundreds and, ultimately, thousands of runaway slaves made their way to the refuge of Fortress Monroe. While technically the fugitives were not free, “contraband” was preferable to “slave” and a step closer to freedom. The contrabands labored for the Union forces and lived in camps they built themselves just outside Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

There, under the shade of an enormous live oak tree, slave children learned to read and write, taught by Mary Smith Peake, a local free black woman working with the American Missionary Association. The open-air education defied longstanding laws against teaching slaves or free blacks to read or write. These classes are considered the first at what is now Hampton University.

In 1863, under that same tree, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the area's black community, guaranteeing their eventual freedom. Some historians believe it to be the first reading in the South of the proclamation. The tree, which still stands on the Hampton University campus, is now known as the Emancipation Oak.

Under the Freedom Tree (www.underthefreedomtree.com) is a free-verse recounting of the events in and around Fortress Monroe using the Emancipation Oak as its central image. Fort Monroe was designated a national monument by President Barack Obama on November 1, 2011.

Susan VanHecke (www.susanvanhecke.com) of Norfolk, Virginia, is an author of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. Her books for young readers include Raggin' Jazzin' Rockin': A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills, 2011), a 2012 American Library Association Notable Children's Book; An Apple Pie for Dinner (Marshall Cavendish, 2009); and Rock 'N' Roll Soldier (HarperCollins, 2009), with Dean Ellis Kohler, foreword by Graham Nash.

VanHecke's books for adults include Race With the Devil: Gene Vincent's Life in the Fast Lane (St. Martin's Press, 2000), adapted into an award-winning screenplay; Three Steps to Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story (Hal Leonard, 2003), with Bobby Cochran; and Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out (Hal Leonard, 2007)/Raising Hell on the Rock 'N' Roll Highway (Omnibus UK, 2009), with Tom Wright, foreword by Pete Townshend of the Who. Barnes and Noble CEO Steve Riggio deemed Roadwork "probably the best book on rock & roll ever published."

London Ladd (www.londonladd.com) is the illustrator of Oprah: The Little Speaker (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) by Carole Boston Weatherford and March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris (Scholastic, 2008), a 2008 Parents' Choice Award winner. His paintings have been displayed at the Everson Museum of Art.