- Published: 15 November 2016 15 November 2016
Frye Gaillard has spent his career as a journalist and author chronicling the people, places, events, and stories of the American South, focusing on the convergence of race, history, politics, and culture. As a long-time reporter for the Charlotte Observer, he covered the region's journey to public school desgregation, the rise and spectacular fall of televangelist Jim Bakker, Elvis Presley's funeral, and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Gaillard has also authored numerous books, on subjects ranging from country music to the history of native Americans in the South. At present, he is the writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama, and lives in Mobile with his wife, Nancy, who teaches in the university's College of Education.
His new book for young readers, Go South to Freedom (NewSouth Books, $17.95), explores the complex story of the Black Seminoles: runaway slaves who lived with the Seminole Indians in Florida. Gaillard expands the story of his friend Robert Croshon's family story into a heartfelt novel for young readers, and illuminates a dramatic and important chapter in American history.
Gaillard shared his thoughts with Lady Banks on writing Go South to Freedom, the challenges facing a journalist writing fiction, and his quest to keep a friend's story alive for new generations:
There were a lot of ways to write this story. I had written a much shorter version, very straight-forward, in an earlier piece about my friend, Robert Croshon, who told the story to me. I had been thinking about writing a children's book. I had collaborated on one earlier with a North Carolina teacher named Melinda Farbman - the true story of Ham, the little chimpanzee that NASA launched into space back in 1961. One of my grandchildren had recently asked me if I was ever going to do another "book for kids," and I decided this story might lend itself to that. The more I wrote, the more certain I was that his was a good setting for such a moving and dramatic oral history.
Go South to Freedom isn't your story, it is the story of the family of a friend, Mr. Robert Croshon. Even though you had his blessing to tell the story to a wider audience, did you ever worry that it wasn't your story to tell?
I've spent much of my career as a journalist, a profession in which you're always writing somebody else's story. There's an inherent presumption in that, and the only antidotes to it are listening carefully and treating these stories with respect. This wasn't hard in the case of my friend, Robert Croshon. He was one of the kindest, most genteel and dignified men I've ever known, and I had great affection for him. He said he was pleased after I first wrote a brief account of his oral history, and he seemed pleased that I wanted to turn it into this little book. It took me a while to get to it on a fairly long list of writing projects, and sadly he passed away before I did. I think it's clear in the book, both within the story itself, and also in an afterword that details my debts, not only to Robert but to scholars who had researched and written about the broader history, that this is somebody else's story - hopefully written with tenderness and respect.
In the book, the storyteller is the great-grandson of the baby in the story of the family's escape from slavery. Is that who Robert Croshon heard the story from?
Yes, Robert Croshon learned the story from his great-aunt when she was quite old and he was quite young, and she was the infant in the story.
Even though it is written as historical fiction, Go South to Freedom talks about some real events, places, and people. What were "Black Seminoles" and who was John Horse? Why did you include him as a character in the story?
The Black Seminoles were runaway slaves and their descendants who lived with the Seminole Indians in Florida. Usually in separate, contiguous villages. The Seminole Wars, I learned, were as much about re-capturing the runaways as they were about subduing the Indians. The Black Seminoles fought side-by-side with their Indian neighbors in all of those wars - very bravely and tenaciously, according to all accounts. There was a lot at stake. These were, in effect, the largest slave uprisings in U.S. history, or at least you could make that case. John Horse, one of the most important leaders of the Black Seminoles, was a historical figure whose story is well-documented, but not well-known - a war chief, among other things, who fought along side the famous Native American chief, Osceola. I hope to write more about Horse in the future. It's fun, of course, to learn things you didn't know before.
How was it possible for a free black community to exist in Mobile, Alabama, before the Civil War? How long did it survive?
The free black community in Mobile traced back to the time in the 18th century when Mobile was controlled by the French and then the Spanish. Some were Creoles, or mixed-blood people whose ancestors were French, Indian, and black, and their legal status was secure before Mobile became a part of the United States. As time went by this community also included former slaves who had been freed by their owners, sometimes because the owners had moved from plantations to the small city of Mobile to work in various professions - lawyers, merchants, doctors, whatever - and they found they didn't really need slaves, or at least not as many. The free people of color in Mobile, whether black or Creole, faced restrictions on their lives - their right to bear arms, their freedom to assemble or participate in the democracy around them. They also faced dire penalties if they took in runaway slaves, and yet some of them did it anyway. They remained free through the Civil War, when, of course, slavery ended altogether and a new struggle began.
The illustrations for the book are beautiful. How did you find the artist, Anne Kent Rush?
Anne Kent Rush and I had been friends for years. I knew her work as an artist and thought she would be the perfect illustrator. I was definitely right about this!
I notice that the illustrations were often more informative than pictures of the scenes in the story -- pictures of wildlife, of the Seminoles and of how they lived. Why did you and the Anne Kent Rush decide do to that?
Kent Rush really made the decisions about what illustrations to include. She wanted the book to be as educational as possible for young readers. My only contribution to her decisions was to say something like, "wow, that's great!" when she showed me the pictures. Suzanne LaRosa, our publisher at NewSouth Books, had some input also, but I think Suzanne will tell you as well that most artistic decisions were Kent's. The illustrations are one of the great strengths of the book, though I will add that the layout and artistic design by NewSouth were a perfect setting for Kent's work, flowing sort of organically from the art.
Any story about slavery, not to mention war, has a lot of violence in it. How how do you deal with that in a children's book?
I tried to deal with the violence as gently as possible, softening it through the gentle voice of the narrator, whose voice by the way - in spirit, if not identically in form - was inspired by Robert Croshon's. It's the first time I've ever written a whole book in somebody else's voice. But Robert's ability to see inspiration more than bitterness in this story kind of flows through the whole telling, and the hard realities serve more as a backdrop for the heroism and tenacity than as something to horrify young readers. It's still delicate, of course. I remember when my oldest granddaughter, Abby, first learned in elementary school that there had been something called slavery. She called me in tears: "Granddad, it's just not fair." So I thought about that as I was writing the book. It's a hard thing.
At the end of the book, the storyteller tells his audience not to forget the stories he just told: "It's like my great-grandmamma said. We carry a piece of that story inside us. We just got to keep it alive." Is that why you wrote Go South to Freedom? To keep the story alive? Or because everyone has a piece of a story inside them that ought to be told?
Yes. I wrote Go South to Freedom to help keep alive the story that a dear friend had honored me by sharing. I also wanted to honor the bravery and tenacity of people who wanted to escape the terrible scourge of slavery. (My own ancestors had been on the wrong side of that history.) But I also remembered the lessons from Roots, not, of course, in the sense of comparing myself to Alex Haley, but of remembering why Haley's story was so universal. It was not only the story of slavery, it was the story of family. All families have their histories, their stories, some well-preserved, some not, but I hoped to help inspire kids to talk to their parents and grandparents about things that happened in their lives and before. We do need to keep our stories alive.