This book tells the true story of William “Bill” Lewis, born into slavery around 1810. His biological father was Colonel James Lewis, a slaveholder who owned a plantation in Winchester, Tennessee.
Colonel Lewis decided Bill should train to be a blacksmith, and Bill got so good at it that local people began to pay for his services. Colonel Lewis let Bill keep a little of the money for himself:
“Each coin he saved brought him closer to purchasing his freedom. Once he was free, he could spend his money on whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was to free his family.”
Bill saved for years. Eventually he married a woman named Jane, and they began to have children. Thus he needed even more money, and he asked Colonel Lewis to let him rent himself out. The Colonel agreed on the condition that Bill pay him $350 a year as “rent” for his freedom, and then he could keep the rest. Bill, then age 27, agreed.
Bill must have been very good indeed. He earned enough money to open his own blacksmith shop in Chattanooga. There, in 1837, he made history as the first African American blacksmith in the city. He worked day and night so he could buy Jane’s freedom. As the author explains, “Once Jane was free, any future children she and Bill had would also be free.” He paid $1,000 for her freedom. [Note: $1,000 in 1837 is equivalent in purchasing power to $25,533.33 in 2017.]
He continued to work hard, buying his own freedom for $1,000 next. He still had his son Eldridge’s freedom to purchase, and finally was able to do so for $400. In 1851, he paid the colonel $300, the total asking price for his elderly mother and aunt. Yet, his siblings still remained in bondage. So he worked even harder. Finally he was able to return to Winchester with the $2,000 for his two brothers.
At age 50, Bill was able to buy a big house with $2,000 cash for his ten children and extended family. The author concludes:
“Twenty-six years after Bill’s arrival in Chattanooga, his plan was complete. He had worked, sweated, and prayed. Now he finally had his loving family around him, just like when he was a boy. Only now they were all free.”
In an Afterword, the author also tells about Bill’s brave exploits during the Civil War. Nevertheless, Union soldiers seized Bill’s blacksmith shop during the war, and most of his fortune disappeared. He and Jane were forced to file for a government pension.
Bill died on September 2, 1896, at around the age of 86. The author reports that his obituary said he left behind “a host of friends, both white and colored, and always bore an excellent record for thrift, honesty and sobriety.”
Today, there is a historical marker in Chattanooga that was erected in his honor.
Illustrator John Holyfield uses full-color acrylic illustrations that richly capture the emotions of the characters in the story with an overall emphasis on positive and uplifting depictions of African-American lives, even in slavery.
Evaluation: It’s hard not to be awe-struck and inspired by the story of Bill Lewis. My only criticism would be that the author did not stress how unusual Bill’s situation was, because of being allowed to develop his outstanding talent; being allowed to profit from it; and being allowed to purchase the freedom of himself and his family. The author also doesn’t explain the reason why Bill needed to buy Jane’s freedom before his own. (The status of children, whether slave or free, was determined by the status of the mother, not the father.)
Nevertheless, this uplifting story is both instructive and inspirational. It has a strong emotional core that will pull in readers and help them learn important history at the same time, offering a strong counter-narrative to the common canard that slaves were “lazy.” It will no doubt also start questions and conversations about social and cultural justice.
Published by Lee and Low Books, 2018