Under the Freedom Tree

Under the Freedom Tree

“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.

Story Reading Strategy

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?

Essential Educational Elements

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.

  • Chattel: item of property.
  • Contraband: illegal or prohibited goods.
  • Secede: to break away.
  • Slavery: institution of owning people as property.
  1. Use the cards on page three of this reading guide to play a matching game with students.
  2. Review the chronology of emancipation detailed by the Freedom and Southern Society Project. Pick a minimum of 8 key events to create a timeline. Have students illustrate the timeline.

Chronology of Emancipation:

Library of Congress:

Title: Under the Freedom Tree

Author: Susan VanHecke

Illustrator: London Ladd 

Copyright: Reprint edition (December 3, 2019)

Publisher: Charlesbridge