In her book, “The Freedom Stone,” young-adult novelist Judi Howe describes how her main character, 12-year-old Moses, finds a glittering piece of quartz in the soil where he toils on a plantation in 1850s Culpeper County.
After Moses, who is enslaved, shows the stone to Paris, an older enslaved man, they discuss for the first time the possibility of Moses making his way north to freedom.
“Maybe one day, there will be a chance,” Paris, who mentors Moses, tells the boy. “Tonight, we’ll polish up that shiny quartz stone. I want you to keep it with you always. It will remind you every day that you want to be free.”
Throughout the story, written for a middle-school audience, the stone serves as that reminder, giving Moses courage and hope each time he feels its solid presence in his pocket, bolstering him at critical moments in his escape from the oppression of slavery.
“The stone becomes a powerful symbol for Moses,” said Howe, visiting from North Carolina to give a presentation on her book on Friday, May 24, at the Museum of Culpeper History. “He, like many of us, clings to physical reminders of ideals we hold deep in our hearts.”
Howe’s book was released last fall, and she said it has had limited success since. “But I’d really like to get it into schools more,” she said. “That is really my primary goal.”
A retired elementary and middle school teacher, Howe wrote the book specifically to help 9- to 12-year-olds gain a more accurate picture of U.S. history in relation to slavery. It provides a personalized account of day-to-day life work on a plantation, and the circumstances that drove Moses to risk his life—and the lives of all who helped him—in his quest to be free.
Seven years ago, Howe visited Dachau in eastern Germany, where her guide was very clear in sharing the truth of the horrors that took place in the first concentration camp established by the Nazis.
Talking with the guide, Howe learned that children in that part of Bavaria begin learning about the Holocaust during the middle-school years. That educational foundation is expanded in the curriculum each subsequent year until they graduate from secondary school.
“As part of their middle-school education, they must go to a concentration camp,” Howe said.
This led Howe to compare such an education with the schooling provided to children in the United States.
“I wish we did a little bit better job in our country teaching about some things in our darker periods of American history,” she said.
In her adulthood, Howe said she has become painfully aware of the things she didn’t learn in school. For example, she said she was taught very little about American Indian history, and she didn’t find out about the nation’s Japanese internment camps during World War II until late in her 30s.
Also, “Certainly I didn’t learn important details about slavery,” she said. “And I was concerned that what I did learn, I found out later, wasn’t always accurate.”
Looking for truth
Howe decided one thing she could do personally to help make a change would be to write a book.
“I love children, I know them and understand them, and enjoy talking and interacting with them,” Howe said. “Writing a book for them seemed like a natural next step.”
But in an effort to ensure she overcame the inaccuracies of her own education, and to provide the most correct account, Howe began a five-year research project on topics related to slavery, reading hundreds of books and articles, visiting sites and talking with a variety of historians.
Then, working with a children’s editor to ensure her material wouldn’t be inappropriately graphic, Howe began writing. While her story includes uncomfortable details—Moses witnesses his father being whipped, for example, after which he dies—Howe is careful not to dwell on the cruelty.
“I include characters that try to reflect real human nature,” she said. “People of all races do good things and bad things.”
The master of the Culpeper plantation in Howe’s book is shown as alcoholic and abusive, not just to the slaves, but to his own family. His wife, however, is kind, teaching Moses and his sister how to read, and paving the way for their escape.
To assist teachers and parents in discussions with students, Howe provides a free Teachers Guide, downloadable from her website, www.judihowe.com.
It began in Virginia
The first captives from West Africa destined for slave labor in the colonies were delivered to Jamestown 400 years ago, in 1619. Virginia is notorious in U.S. history for having a far greater number of enslaved people than any other state.
“In 1850, Virginia had a population of nearly 293,000 enslaved people,” Howe said. “This was more than twice as many as any other Southern state.”
In Culpeper that year, the county’s population was 12,282. “Of that number, 6,683 were enslaved Africans,” Howe said. “So more than half the population of Culpeper at that time, 54 percent, were slaves.”
These demographics are part of why Howe chose Culpeper as the setting of her book.
“Also, for a children’s book that was limited to 50,000 words, I needed their escape to be further north,” Howe said.
Finally, Howe happened to drive through Culpeper four years ago, in the midst of her research.
“The town is charming,” Howe said. “It’s beautiful. I was drawn to the museum.”
She learned how Culpeper was critical to both the North and the South during the Civil War because of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and the county’s location between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, which also made it critical for escaping slaves.
After learning that there was also a sizable community of free blacks in the area, and that a number of Culpeper residents were known to shelter runaway slaves, Howe felt she had found her setting.
Eyeing the future
In the fifth-grade classrooms she has visited over the past months to discuss her book, Howe has found students remarkably engaged in the history it relates, particularly in the characters’ use of the Underground Railroad.
“The first misconception is always, it’s not literally underground, and it’s not an actual railroad,” Howe said.
Displaying words used by those who developed the network of secret routes and safe houses used by the enslaved to escape into free states or Canada, Howe said students are always interested in the clandestine terms used by escaping slaves and those who assisted them.
“A ‘station’ was a safe place to stop on the way; ‘baggage’ referred to those seeking freedom,” Howe said. “And there are many Bible references, especially about the Israelites seeking the promised land.”
Also, Howe said, children frequently express shock to learn that slavery was really a part of American culture.
“How can you own another person? It’s so unfair, so obviously wrong,” Howe said, adding that children in their innocence especially recognize how this history goes against not only the basic compassion inherent in human nature, but against the most trumpeted passages of our nation’s Constitution.
“It’s so interesting hearing children discuss the whole idea,” Howe said. “They are so appalled.”
Howard N. Lee, founder and president of the Howard N. Lee Institute for Equity and Opportunity in Education, praised Howe’s book.
“If we don’t understand and learn from history, we will not understand when history is being repeated,” he wrote. “ ‘The Freedom Stone’ presents an accurate historical detail of what the experience was like, both on the plantation, and on the path to freedom. ... This book will be a useful tool in the classroom for educators who wish to go beyond the all-too-often laundered version of American history.”