“Under the Freedom Tree” 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 went 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 entered 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.
Talk about the book and the main characters, Frank, James, and Shepard. Describe the front cover of the book. What do we know about slavery in the United States? What do the men want? Can you define freedom? Based on the book's cover, can you tell what the story will be about?
While reading the book, think about the three men's journey to freedom. Do you think they were brave to escape? Why or why not?
Describe what happened in the story in your own words. Describe how the men might have felt physically and emotionally. How so? How do you think the people felt building Slabtown? Are they happy? How can you tell? Are the people free? What does being free mean to them? What does being free mean to you?
In reading this story and engaging in a fun learning activity, young readers will build reading skills, develop critical thinking skills, and make connections between characters in stories and real people.
Title: Under the Freedom Tree
Author: Susan VanHecke
Illustrator: London Ladd