Glennette Tilley Turner is an author, historian, and educator. Since the early 1970s, the Underground Railroad has been the focus of much of her historical research, particularly in Illinois and elsewhere in the Middle West and in, recent years, her childhood home of St. Augustine, Florida. She taught elementary school in Chicago, Maywood, and Wheaton, IL for more than twenty-four years. Turner was named Outstanding Woman Educator in DuPage County, and received commendation from Illinois State Legislature upon retirement. FORT MOSE: AND THE STORY OF THE MAN WHO BUILT THE FIRST FREE BLACK SETTLEMENT IN COLONIAL AMERICA (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010) was named the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Golden Kite Honor Book for Excellence in Children’s Literature. You are to be presented the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom’s highest honor in June. Can you tell us about the work you have done to educate others about the people and locations that were important to the Underground Railroad?
I had been under the impression that the Underground Railroad had only operated on the upper East Coast. Years later, when our family moved to a Chicago suburb, I learned that the UGRR had operated there and elsewhere in Illinois and the Middle West. Intrigued, I began to conduct research and write about this “missing chapter” of UGRR history.
In the course of it I published THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN ILLINOIS; wrote magazine articles; conducted UGRR tours for the Newberry library; spoke extensively at schools, libraries, historical societies, and conferences; was interviewed on television programs and in the WTTW-PBS documentary FROM DUSABLE TO OBAMA. Having taught, I also developed games, mind maps, and strategies for teaching the UGRR across the curriculum Speaking of teaching: you were also an elementary school teacher for nearly 25 years. What are some ways that teachers of younger students can introduce the history of the Underground Railroad in their classes?
I would read picture books such as SWEET CLARA AND THE FREEDOM QUILT
and, more recently, AN APPLE FOR HARRIET TUBMAN
. At pertinent points, I would pause and ask questions. For example, when these picture books described the babysitting Harriet did, I might ask, “How would you feel if you had had to do that?” And when she and Clara escaped, you could ask, “Do you think they did the right thing to leave?”
At other junctures in the story, explain that the UGRR was made up of people like Clara and Harriet and the free black and white people who assisted them. Ask, “If you had heard the words ‘Underground Railroad’ without knowing what it was, what would you have guessed?” (Most times the answer was “a subway train.”) Fort Mose, the subject of your book by the same name, is a fascinating piece of American history, but it only got official recognition as a National Historic Landmark in 1995. Can you share some of the history of this place and how you came to discover it?
Fort Mose was the first officially sanctioned free black settlement in Colonial America. It was established under the leadership of Francisco Menendez. He was born in the Senegambia region of West Africa and enslaved in South Carolina, where he fought in the Yamasee War. He reached St. Augustine with the help of the Yamasee, where the Spanish had promised freedom to Freedom Seekers. Menendez was re-enslaved there before the Spanish officially established Fort Mose and he became its leader. Reviewers have commended you for incorporating interesting cultural and period details into FORT MOSE. How did you decide what traditions and customs to highlight in a picture book about a place where so many cultures intersected?
Since some things are timeless and universal, I focused on traditions and customs like storytelling, foods, music, and dance. My feeling was that, although the specific details would be different now and in the 1700s and in the locations where the story unfolded, young readers would be interested in comparing and contrasting the past and present. You chose to tell Harriet Tubman’s life story through the lens of her love of apples in AN APPLE FOR HARRIET TUBMAN. What steps did you take to portray her in a way that would make her more relatable to children?
To take “an eyewitness” approach. In the book, readers would simultaneously learn what Harriet Tubman’s life was like and think how they would feel in a similar situation.
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