Myra Lucretia Taylor's dramatic performance successfully delivers the powerful message about freedom in this prose poem for children. During the Civil War, three slaves flee north to Virginia, where they're protected as "contraband of war" and begin a new life. Taylor's expert modulations in pacing and tone, along with breathless whispers in moments of suspense, capture the fear and heightened emotions of the escape. Smooth and confident articulation conveys the free men's jubilation when the story culminates with the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This engaging and educational recording includes background on the story's events and the significance of the Freedom Tree, in addition to a read-along. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award. —AudioFile

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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. —Kirkus

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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. —Publishers Weekly

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In 1861, when Union General Benjamin Butler refused to return three escaped slaves to their owners, calling them "contraband of war," he set off a little-known episode in history in which more than nine hundred slaves ended up in Hampton, Virginia, working for the Union army. They were one step closer to freedom, though they were far from free. Eventually, schools were set up in Slabtown and Grand Contraband Camp, and these early schools led to the founding of Hampton University. Told in a spare, poetic voice, this story is filled with bravery, luck, and timing. If the initial three men had escaped any earlier, the Union officer would have been bound by the Fugitive Slave Act, but with the secession of Virginia, he argued that the law no longer applied. Realistic acrylic paintings depict the everyday life of the "enemy property," as the growing community builds a new town near the old oak tree that serves as shade for the school and place of joy to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. The lengthy author's note fills in the details left out by the brief verse, making this one a story to read more than once. Slavery is a challenging topic to introduce to young readers, but they have to start somewhere. This, along with Shane Evans's Underground (rev. 1/11), is a terrific place to begin. —Horn Book

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“Hearts drumming, / eyes darting, / knees trembling.” Susan VanHecke’s reverent free verse describes the trepidation felt by Frank, James and Shepard, three slaves working in a Confederate camp in Virginia, as they risk their lives. The men secretly slip out and sail across the harbor to a Union fort on May 23, 1861. If they had attempted this just a few days earlier, they would have been returned according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But Virginia has recently seceded from the United States, and the Union general declares the men “contraband” and “keeps” them as “enemy property.”

Soon the three former slaves are joined by hundreds more. Based on actual events and accompanied by dramatic illustrations, this poetic picture book follows the runaways as they build a community, which they call Slabtown, in the ruined city of Hampton, once torched by Confederates. At the heart of this community grows a mighty oak, where missionaries illegally teach slave children to read, and a boy recites President Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation, a promise of freedom to come.

A concluding author’s note provides more information on the Emancipation Oak, now designated one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society, and the daring escape of the three slaves. With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history. —BookPage

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Using rhythmic and staccato lines, Susan VanHecke’s Under the Freedom Tree tells a true story from the Civil War that may be new to many children and their parents. Three southern slaves, Frank, James, and Shepard, run away from a Confederate camp in 1861, and escape to a Union camp in search of freedom. The Union General, but seizing the slaves as “enemy property” is able to refuse to return them to the Confederate Colonel. This begins a stream of “…hundreds, then more. Runaways, Stowaways, Barefoot, mud-crusted” people escaping slavery in search of freedom. And that’s how a place called Slabtown begins; a town that is “A home of their own, a first for the many, A home for them all by the old oak tree.”

Under the Freedom Tree focuses on the development of Slabtown, created by the thousands of people who left southern slavery to seek refuge in the north thanks to the “enemy property” clause. Children will ask about words like “chattel” and “contraband of war” in reference to people. They will also want to talk about why the three men, Frank, James, Shepard, felt they were seen as “…possessions. Owned and used like cows, pigs, dogs.” In addition, parents should be prepared to discuss why reading and writing were forbidden for some, as teaching under the tree of the book title is discussed.

I recommend that before sharing this beautiful book with younger children, parents and caregivers take the time to read the detailed and informative author’s note at the end of the story. The book’s text is in poetic verse, and the author’s note will help those unfamiliar with this piece of Civil War history discuss it with more detail and confidence. Using the painted illustrations, by London Ladd, to discuss emotions and actions mentioned in the text is recommended as well. There is a multi-media website dedicated to Under the Freedom Tree that is interesting and very useful.

Highly recommended, Under the Freedom Tree will bring an oft overlooked story into focus for children and adults alike. Ages 6-9, although I recommend this book for the older range of that scale and above. —Vegbooks

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Under the Freedom Tree, written by Susan VanHecke and illustrated by London Ladd is a fascinating tribute to Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory—three slaves who changed history by escaping and crossing Confederate lines to Fort Monroe, a Union held base. 

VanHecke creates a series of powerful images carefully balanced between the story of these three men and the event that was the catalyst which would challenge the Fugitive Slave Act. On the night of May 23, 1861, these three men dared to cross the waters of the Hampton Roads harbor to escape to Fort Monroe on the northern shore. Three days earlier, Virginia had seceded and declared that it was no longer part of the United States. For that reason, the slaves were deemed as war contraband and not returned to their Confederate master. Word quickly spread and within a few months, more than 900 slaves had escaped and were at Fort Monroe and while they were held by the Union Army, they were able to construct their own settlement and by October of that year, they began to receive payment for their work and services to the Union army. 

Told through lyrical verse, VanHecke captures the rhythms of the fear, the struggles, the hope, and the joy of a people who would risk their lives to be free. She tells of the missionaries and the teachers who came from the north to teach the children to read and write under an old oak tree and how in 1863 hundreds huddled under and around that tree—the Freedom tree-- to hear the voice of a boy read: “By the President of the United States of America…all persons held as slaves…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” 

Susan VanHecke provides readers with a glimpse of the confrontations and horror faced during the early years of the civil war by those who dared to challenge the injustices of the time, while the illustrations of London Ladd expand the narrative imagery of the time period. —The Children's Bookshelf, WCMU, Central Michigan University Public Radio

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Told in free verse, this picture book is the story of how the first contraband camp formed during the Civil War.  It all started with three runaway slaves who escaped across a river to a Union-held fort.  Though the Confederate Army tried to demand their return, the general at the fort declared them “contraband of war” and offered them protection and a place to live.  The three were quickly joined by a flood of people crossing the line into Union territory and they began to build a home for themselves near the fort.  The freedom tree is the Emancipation Oak which stood witness to the events that unfolded, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which set all of the residents of the camp free.

VanHecke’s verse is loose and beautiful.  She captures the danger the slaves faced in crossing the Confederate line, the risks they took asking for shelter, and the clever solution found by the general.  She offers an author’s note in prose to give more historical context to the camp and the Emancipation Oak. 

Ladd’s illustrations are lush and detailed.  His paintings capture the hope of emancipation, the darkness of escape by water and night, and the beauty of the oak.  The illustrations clearly honor the first three men who escaped to the fort, showing them as they wait for the judgment of whether they must return to slavery or not. 

A little-known part of the history of the Civil War, this book in verse pays homage to the courage of the men who created the contraband camp.  Appropriate for ages 6-10. —Waking Brain Cells


Interview with author Susan VanHecke interview with illustrator London Ladd

Unabridged interview with London Ladd

Author Spotlight interview with Susan VanHecke

NC Teacher Stuff interview with Susan VanHecke

Author/educator Laura Purdie Salas on Under the Freedom Tree, three parts

Author/educator Debbie Gonzales on Under the Freedom Tree

Good Reads with Ronna interview with Susan VanHecke

Good Reads with Ronna interview with London Ladd

Smart Books for Smart Kids interview with Susan VanHecke

Smart Books for Smart Kids interview with London Ladd

ReaderKidZ interview with Susan VanHecke

ReaderKidZ interview with London Ladd

Two Writing Teachers interview with Susan VanHecke

© Susan VanHecke 2023