Hope, Determination, the Ultimate Celebration: An In-Depth Interview with Author Susan VanHecke

UnderFreedomTree_300After reviewing Under the Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge Publishing) for Black History Month, I was eager to interview both the author and illustrator of the book, a team that I’m sure you’ll agree, worked together in perfect harmony to create a most original and beautifully illustrated story based upon actual historical events. Today I share with you my interview with author Susan VanHecke, and tomorrow my interview with London Ladd. . .

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Susan VanHecke has been hooked on writing ever since she won a third grade writing contest. She got her degree in Film and TV Production from NYU but ultimately became an author. She’s particularly interested in telling stories of people’s lives, as she does with Under the Freedom Tree.  Today she shares with us answers to  questions readers may have about her telling of this intriguing story of African American slaves and the Emancipation Oak Tree of Hampton, VA.

I read on your website that you discovered you had abolitionists in your family tree. Can you tell us more about how you discovered that and what you found out about them?

I’d been doing some genealogical research, Googling the names of my ancestors on my father’s side. Via a historical society website, I was amazed to discover that my great-great-great grandfather, a prominent farmer in Warsaw, New York, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, hiding runaway slaves in the bog on his farm or under the family farmhouse. When slave catchers came to town, he’d hustle fugitive slaves down through a trapdoor in the parlor floor, then he’d roll a rug out over the trapdoor, place a rocking chair on top of that, and my great-great-great grandma would sit and rock as she did needlework. When one pregnant runaway arrived ready to give birth, she delivered a baby boy right in the family kitchen, and apparently named the child after my great-great-great-great grandfather, who also lived on the family farm.

That is a remarkable story. What a great find! I understand you now live 12 miles from the Emancipation Oak Tree but didn’t know it was there. How did you discover it and what transpired to get you interested in it enough to write your book?

I ran across an unforgettable photo of a gorgeous old oak tree in the back of a local lifestyle magazine here in southeastern Virginia. The caption said that this was where area slaves heard the Emancipation Proclamation, what some believe was the first Southern reading of that pivotal document. I couldn’t believe that I’d driven past the tree for decades and never even known it was there! As I dug into the tree’s incredible history and learned of the contraband slaves, I knew I had to let others know about this amazing story, especially kids.

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© Copyright – Image of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation under the oak tree courtesy of Charlesbridge Publishing

Is the tree that stands there today the very same tree the slaves gathered under during the 1860s, and do you know who takes care of it now?

Yes, it’s the very same tree. Under its branches, slaves learned to read and write and heard about important developments such as the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those first outdoor classes are considered to be the first classes held at what is now Hampton University. The Emancipation Oak is part of the National Historic Landmark district at Hampton University, which takes care of the tree. It’s open to the public, and I highly recommend a visit. If you can’t get there yourself, you can virtually stand under the tree  here.

“It was a quiet summer day, and standing there under that green, leaf-filtered light, I felt as if I were soaking up all the emotion—the hope, the determination, the ultimate celebration—that swirled under and around that tree so many years ago.”

How did it come about that you wrote the book in free verse, and did you find this to be more challenging to write than a traditional story?

For this project, writing in free verse was actually easier than writing in prose. In fact, I struggled for a couple of years to share the story in prose. I could never make it come out right. It always read kind of flat, which was exasperating because the tale of these daring souls – who literally risked their lives in pursuit of freedom – is anything but flat. Time and time again I’d give the story another shot and wind up setting it aside in frustration.

Then one day I ran across the late author Virginia Hamilton’s concept of “rememory” in a collection of her speeches and essays. “An exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined” is how she described it. That intrigued me. An imagined recollection? I decided to pay a personal visit to Emancipation Oak. It was a quiet summer day, and standing there under that green, leaf-filtered light, I felt as if I were soaking up all the emotion—the hope, the determination, the ultimate celebration—that swirled under and around that tree so many years ago. I could imagine it all as if it were my own recollection; it was a “rememory.” That shook things loose, finally, and what poured forth happened to be free verse. I went with it!

Can you tell us how you went about researching the topic of the Emancipation Tree and Fort Monroe for your book? There must have been a tremendous amount of information for you to comb through!


Image of the reception of the wounded soldiers by the national authorities at Fortress Monroe, VA in the Public Domain

When I start researching a project, I first cast my net pretty wide with a Google search. That will turn up the usual suspects, like Wikipedia entries. If the Wikipedia entries are well sourced, I can start drilling down via those references to primary sources. Searches in Google Books and Google Scholar can turn up great stuff; I found the autobiography of Union General Benjamin Butler, who made that landmark contraband slave decision, through Google Books, and articles about Emancipation Oak from the turn of the twentieth century using Google Scholar.

The archives at Hampton University and the Hampton History Museum were a tremendous resource, as was the digital photo collection at the Library of Congress. I’ve compiled many of the rare and vintage images I found in my research in a gallery at the book’s website.

Books by historians and scholars—like Robert F. Engs’s Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890 and Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening—were also a goldmine of context, information, and source material. We were blessed to have Dr. Goodheart vet the Under the Freedom Tree manuscript for us.

What can you tell us about what you learned about Mary Smith Peake, the free black woman who began teaching classes Mary_Smith_Peakeunder the tree? How did she get her education?

Mary Peake was the daughter of a free black mother and an English father. As a child, she was sent to live with an aunt in the District of Columbia so she could attend school. When she returned to southeastern Virginia, she secretly taught blacks to read and write, which was against the law. When Fort Monroe became a refuge for runaway slaves seeking the new “contraband” status, Peake set up her illegal outdoor classroom under the Freedom Tree, teaching the contrabands their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s. Such courage!

Image of Mary Smith Peake in the Public Domain

Reading about how many slaves fled to Fort Monroe, I was curious about where they all stayed when there and what their living conditions were like.

The Union forces were totally unprepared to take care of the sheer volume of fugitives that sought asylum at Fort Monroe; they were, after all, in the midst of a brutal war. Runaways lived in tents; some were housed temporarily at a nearby seminary until that facility was needed for use as a military hospital.

Life behind the Union line wasn’t all that different than life as a slave in Confederate territory; able-bodied contrabands were put to work chopping down trees, digging trenches and ditches, and doing other manual labor. Eventually, the contrabands were paid for their work, but not at first. And early on they were often cheated out of their wages, money withheld by Union officers for food, clothing, or placement in a fund for those contrabands who couldn’t work.

Things got better with the arrival of the American Missionary Association, whose missionaries and teachers provided aid, a watchful eye, and advocacy for the contrabands. As the contrabands began to build their own communities outside the fort at Grand Contraband Camp and Slabtown, many became self-employed, earning their own money by fishing, oystering, farming, and baking and selling their wares to the Union troops. What a feeling it must have been to go from slave to self-employed.

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© Copyright – Image of slaves at work at Fort Monroe courtesy of Charlesbridge Publishing

How would you explain to children what the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 meant for the slaves, as The_Emancipation_Proclamationcompared to the 13th Amendment in 1865 that abolished slavery?

The Emancipation Proclamation was a sort of promise of what would come with the Thirteenth Amendment. The proclamation didn’t outlaw slavery, but it did free slaves in Confederate-held areas. And certainly, these words would have been breathtaking for the contrabands to hear, offering spectacular hope for their own standing: “By the President of the United States of America…all persons held as slaves…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Image of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Public Domain

I was impressed with the valuable Teacher’s Guide and Theater Script for the book. Did you help with creating that?

The Common Core-aligned Educator’s Guide was created by the fabulous Debbie Gonzales, an author and teacher herself. I love all the fun, hands-on activities and thought-provoking pre- and post-reading questions she came up with! And the Readers Theater script was created by the wonderful folks at Charlesbridge. I hope educators will find these resources useful in the classroom. — they are available for download online — Goodness knows our amazing but woefully overworked teachers need all the help we can give them!

What was your reaction when you saw London Ladd’s incredible illustrations for your story?

I was lucky to have seen some of London’s earliest sketches; he kindly shared them with me when he traveled to Hampton to research his illustrations. That was exciting in itself, seeing pictures to go with my words. But I was blown away when I saw the finished art. His passion for the subject shines through, and he did a phenomenal job to bring the people, places, and events of Under the Freedom Tree to life. London’s a true professional, and I’d love to work with him again.

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© Copyright – Image of  fugitive slaves at Chesapeake Bay courtesy of Charlesbridge Publishing

You two certainly make a successful team! Can you tell us a bit about your next book, The Girl in the Box?

Ah, well, The Girl in the Box is actually still a work in progress. Remember that pregnant runaway slave who delivered her baby in my great-great-great grandparents’ kitchen? She and her seven-year-old daughter had traveled twenty-one days hidden in a wooden box in the back of a horse-drawn produce cart before arriving in Warsaw, New York. Sadly, the mother died of tuberculosis not long after giving birth. Amazingly, the mostly white townspeople of Warsaw rallied around the two orphan children and raised them as their own. It’s a fascinating story, but one that has had to simmer on the back burner as I’ve worked on other projects, like Under the Freedom Tree. I hope to return to it soon.

That storyline sounds fantastic. Do you have any advice for writers who wish to embark upon writing a children’s book based upon an historical event?

Research, research, research! Soon you’ll start to see a storyline emerge, and if you’re lucky, maybe even some patterns around which you could structure your tale. In my case, it was this fabulous tree—all these historic events with far-reaching reverberations occurred either near or under Emancipation Oak. And don’t be afraid to experiment, to get emotional, to try a new technique like “rememory.” You might be surprised by the possibilities that open up.

Susan, your work on this book is sure to inspire all who read it. I so appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience writing Under the Freedom Tree with our readers. Do let me know when The Girl in the Box is coming out. I can’t wait to read it!

Readers, buy your copy of Under the Freedom Tree here. Visit Susan VanHecke’s website here. And be sure to visit the Under the Learning Tree website for more information about the book.

Read my in-depth interview with London Ladd, illustrator of Under the Freedom Tree.

Note: No part of the text of this post or the images from Charlesbridge may be used without permission.


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