"[An] immersive true story of courage and grit." Publishers Weekly


Better forward than back...

One May night in 1861, three slaves escaped the Confederate line and rowed across the harbor to a Union-held fort. Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory didn’t know what they would find across the water, but they knew it had to be better than what they left behind.


At the fort, General Benjamin Butler considered the men's plight. The Fugitive Slave Act required him to return the runaways to their master. But what if they were declared “contraband of war”? Then the Union could claim them as enemy property—and protect them. 

Frank, James, and Shepard—the Civil War's first “contrabands”—opened the door for thousands of other runaway slaves who poured into the fort. The contrabands built a community, helped the North win the war, and learned to read under the spreading branches of the tree later known as the Emancipation Oak. This is their story—and the story of the beginning of slavery’s end.

Under the Freedom Tree is a free-verse recounting of the events in and around Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, using the Emancipation Oak as its central image. The Emancipation Oak still stands on the campus of Hampton University. It has been deemed one of the Ten Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society. Fort Monroe, nicknamed "Freedom's Fortress," was designated a national monument by President Barack Obama on November 1, 2011.

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Author Susan VanHecke lives twelve miles from the Emancipation Oak. For years she drove past the tree without even knowing it was there. When she learned of the tree's incredible history—and of the contrabands who learned to read under its branches—she knew she wanted to share the story with children. Susan is the author of Raggin' Jazzin' Rockin': A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills); Rock 'n' Roll Soldier (HarperTeen), with Dean Ellis Kohler; and An Apple Pie for Dinner (Marshall Cavendish/Amazon Children's). She makes her home in Norfolk, Virginia. 

London Ladd traveled to Virginia to walk in Frank, James, and Shepard's footsteps. He listened to the crashing waves at Sewell's Point, looked out over the walls of Fort Monroe, and stood beneath the branches of the Emancipation Oak. He was determined to honor the three men—and all the runaways who courageously pursued their freedom. London is the illustrator of Oprah: The Little Speaker (Marshall Cavendish/Amazon Children's) by Carole Boston Weatherford and March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World (Scholastic) by Christine King Farris. His paintings have been displayed at the Everson Museum of Art. He lives in Syracuse, New York. 

For his expertise and advice, special thanks to Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director at the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College, and author of the best-selling book 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

© Susan VanHecke 2023