Patricia Q. Wall: Writing a Children's Book About Slavery in New England

Roundup: Talking About History

“I never knew there were slaves in New England.” That is the most common response among nearly 4000 teachers, parents and other readers to my book, Child Out of Place: A Story of New England.

Based on thorough research, CHILD… provides teachers and parents with a gentle story to help children understand, get discussions going about a painful era in U.S. history and its repercussions for today. In the story, readers are carried back to the early 19th century, into an old mansion in Portsmouth, NH, and into the troubled heart of ten-year-old Matty, servant and newly freed slave. It reveals the peculiar nature of slavery in this region and a black family’s struggle to endure and finally gain their freedom.

As the author, I am gratified that this small work of historical fiction is helping to open minds to a neglected chapter in the history of enslaved Africans in America. But I’m also most troubled. It’s discouraging to realize that for nearly half a century, scholars have been putting forth a wealth of excellent adult books revealing New England’s participation in that pernicious institution of slavery, yet it appears that most elementary school curricula, textbooks and story books continue to ignore it. Or, pass it off with the wrong headed idea that it was somehow benign and insignificant when compared to the South.

Since CHILD... made its debut at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center in Portsmouth, NH, I have visited with more than two thousand 4th – 6th graders in northern New England. Before discussing my book, I ask children to tell me what they already know about slavery in America. Always, they simply tell me about southern plantations and the Civil War and the “neat” stories they’ve read about the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman. Often, some youngster will assure me that his (or her) house must have been a part of that because “there’s this funny closet in our attic” (or cellar).

One fifth grade boy stood up and described his understanding of the topic by saying, “You see there were millions of slaves brought over from Africa to work on the cotton plantations down south. Then there was the Civil War and President Lincoln freed the slaves and then everything was fine after that.”

In the classroom, once I have read sections of the book to the children, their questions and comments take a different, more empathetic approach. They make personal connections to the characters and their suffering. They ask, “Why did white people do that”…”why didn’t the President stop that?”

A boy tells me, “I can feel what Matty feels.” Their eagerness to know more gives me hope. Of course I realize that one small work of historical fiction won’t make sweeping changes, but perhaps it will encourage children (and their teachers) to seek the real story.

This story came to me (a history enthusiast) by accident. As a long-term guide in the 1716 Warner House Museum in Portsmouth, NH, I planned to write about what I knew – the children of the white families who owned it. But, mid-way into the project, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail by Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons was published and their exciting, ground-breaking work set me on an entirely new course – thank goodness.

And, the story of young Matty in the “Warren” house isn’t finished.

For me, it created an intense desire to know more about early African American history – a rich, complex history of human struggle that all our children deserve to know about. It seems, now that I’ve invented an early 19th century black family in one situation, they’ve decided I must tell more about their life beyond 1806. How I love the research, but oh, the writing can be painful.

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