“BOOKish blog” – a blog about authors and books: When a Tree Stands Tall for Freedom
“The Tulip Poplar tree dates back to before 1800 and was present during the documented operation of the Underground Railroad in Guilford County between 1819-1852. The tree serves as a silent witness to the lives and actions of African Americans (enslaved and free) and their white allies which included many Quakers from New Garden,” North Carolina. The tree is in Guilford College Woods, NC. -- Guilford College Underground Railroad website.
Luvon Roberson: Why did you write THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom?
Minnette Coleman: It all started with the Tree and my desire to create a myth or legend surrounding it. The Tree -- the real tree in Guilford College Woods -- is on land that was never part of a plantation. Therefore, my story couldn't be based or focused on the enslaved blacks imprisoned on a farm. Instead, the story is based on a hero – in this case, a female character named Epsie—who escapes that prison and on what Epsie must endure and then encounter to escape and to be free. Most stories that touch on slavery do not focus on the fear that enslaved Africans faced when it came to leaving their prison. The stories focus on their trials and tribulations and leave it at “this was wrong.” They don't focus enough on the real history that went behind the movement to free those suffering. Therefore, I had to step outside the comfort zone of just talking about slavery and let my character show the other side.
By that, I mean the other side of the story about our country’s history that contained communities of free blacks and abolitionists, especially Quakers, who are also called Friends.
Guilford College freshmen students visiting Tulip Poplar trees that inspired Minnette Coleman's book, The Tree: A Journey to Freedom
Typically, the abolitionists are usually the heroes of these stories, but that is far from the truth. The heroes were those who shared the story of the Tree, who tried to get to Freedom, and who got to the Tree. It is a story of people across racial, religious, or other lines, who came together against injustice, and for freedom. Epsie is that kind of hero. Epsie shares the story of the Tree from one generation to the next.
LR: What do you see is the role of "myth" or "legend" in THE TREE?
MC: I must share that I believe that truth begets legends. "When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend." That is a quote from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring Jimmy Stewart. So myth goes a long way to getting someone out of a bad situation into a good one. And even though we know that this Tree physically exists, there is no proof of its saving powers except that some people have gotten there and survived to live in freedom.
But because it is just a Tree, there are probably those who got there and got caught. But myth, which some might say is the basis for religion, is built on faith and belief. So you have to believe that there is such a Tree with saving powers. You have to believe there were white people out there that may help get you to freedom. You have to believe in something you have yet to see. Therefore, you take the legend and run with it and give those in need something to hope for. Epsie never would have gotten to freedom if she hadn't believed.
Look for more on THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom, in my upcoming interview with its author Minnette Coleman on What’s The 411 TV. Be sure to tune in or visit www.whatsthe411.com. You can see the Underground Railroad Tree, when you visit The Underground Railroad’s Network to Freedom, a National Park Service site, in Guilford College Woods, in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Listen: “Following the Trail to a Living Monument: Underground Railroad Tree,” David Ford’s interview with James Shields, Director of Community Learning, Guilford College.
Discover: Quakers and The Abolition Project:
About the Author: Minnette Coleman
Minnette Coleman is the author of The Blacksmith’s Daughter and No Death by Unknown Hands, both historical novels. An active member of the Harlem Writers Guild, Coleman also wrote Hand-Me-Downs, a one-woman show that she toured across the United States.
Minnette Coleman, author of the book, THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson
Coleman’s research for The Tree began after she graduated from Guilford College, on whose campus grows a centuries-old tree that is part of the Underground Railroad tour and history. As historian for the Black Alumni Advisory Board of Guilford College, Coleman researched how this tree served as a focal point for “running aways” and the Quakers who helped them.
Coleman’s father was the city editor of the Atlanta Daily World, and her grandfather was one of the city’s last blacksmiths. A wife, mother, and grandmother, Coleman lives in New York.