“Go South to Freedom: Based on a True Story”
Author: Frye Gaillard
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $17.95 (Hardcover)
Frye Gaillard, winner of many prestigious writing awards, is is well-known for his histories of the civil rights movement and many other nonfiction works, over 20 in fact. He has covered figures ranging from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Jimmy Carter to subjects as far-ranging as NASCAR, country music and the televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker. Gaillard has ventured into memoir with “Lessons from the Big House” and has explored his family history, recently with “Journey to the Wilderness.”
“Go South to Freedom” is fiction, sort of, a novella for middle schoolers.
Over 20 years ago, Gaillard tells us, an elderly black friend, Robert Croshon, shared with him a story told to Croshon by one of his fairly ancient kinfolk.
Gaillard has transformed this family story, handed down for generations, into a fugitive slave narrative that begins in south Georgia.
The hero of the tale is Gilbert Fields, known as the African, because he remembers being captured as a boy in Gambia and shipped to the South. He can also remember freedom.
The African is enslaved on a 2000-acre cotton and rice plantation in south Georgia. A proud man, the African, after being whipped, decides to escape with his family. The plan was to get to Savannah, where there might be a station on the underground railroad.
The family sets out one night, intending to follow the north star, but storm clouds obscure the clouds and they travel south instead, almost always a mistake.
The family endures exposure, hunger, exhaustion, snakes, alligators, even the drowning of one of their number, but with perseverance and the help of a few other brave black escapees, they get to Florida and join the Seminole nation in the swamps. Seminoles were resisters to the national armies and were known to give refuge to fugitive slaves, sometimes called “Black Seminoles.” The chief of the village they come to is led by Black Seminole John Horse, a little known but apparently extraordinary leader. The villain of this piece, no surprise, is General, then President Andrew Jackson and his determination to move every native American west of the Mississippi, to Oklahoma, and send the black Seminoles back into slavery.
This is a simple story but ends surprisingly with The African and his family in Mobile, a town large enough, it seems, to hide a few fugitive slaves among the free blacks. The African surmises: “I guess Mobile must be a good place.”
A free black native answers, “Well . . . It is and it isn’t. There are still some pretty mean white folks here, and people get in trouble for not much at all.”
“South to Freedom” is illustrated copiously by Anne Kent Rush, who has rendered several characters, especially Indians, several houses, many kinds of birds, trees, flowers, a squirrel, dugout canoes, alligators, a bear, a hare, a cougar. The illustrations are simple but charming.
In his Afterword, Gaillard notes that some liberties have been taken with this story and indeed the narrator says “That’s the way it is with stories. People know some parts, don’t know others,” so no handed-down tale is ever perfectly accurate.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.