Schenectady author Allison Lassieur is highlighting a little-known part of American history with her new middle-grade book “Journey to the Promised Land: A Story of the Exodusters.”
It’s part of North Star Edition’s new “I Am America” series, which focuses on communities and events that have slipped through the cracks of conventional history textbooks.
Lassieur has written well over a hundred books, many of the historical fiction genre. Growing up in Arkansas, Lassieur knew from a young age that she wanted to write.
“I grew up reading. I read anything I could get my hands on. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t quite know how to do it,” Lassieur said.
After studying English and journalism in college, she got a job in children’s magazine publishing and loved it. Over the years, Lassieur has worked as an editor at Highlights for Children magazine, Disney Adventures magazine and many others.
But in 1997, she decided to make the jump and become a full-time writer.
“[There] was a big learning curve, but it was what I really wanted to do,” Lassieur said, “I put my nose to the grindstone and made it work.”
Her first book came out in 2000 and since then she’s spent her career juggling not only book projects but other education-focused projects as well.
“Journey to the Promised Land” is a bit of both. It’s set in the 1870s and follows the story of Hattie Jacobs, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee and wants to be a teacher. Her parents, who are former slaves, are struggling to survive after Reconstruction. When they hear about an opportunity for a better life in Kansas they take it, along with many other families.
“I literally stumbled on the Exodus of 1879. I had never heard of it and I was like, I can’t believe I’ve been a history writer this long and I’ve never heard of this moment in history,” Lassieur said.
In order to write Hattie’s story, and even to come up with Hattie’s character, Lassieur had to do some serious digging. The Exodus of 1879 was the first migration of black Americans after the Civil War. Many people traveled from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas, looking for better economic opportunity.
“At the time it was a huge deal. There was even a congressional hearing about it and I found the transcript of that congressional hearing and the testimony of this one gentleman named Pap Singleton who had testified before Congress about it,” Lassieur said.
Now, there are hardly any books that reference it, let alone many written about it. Lassieur pulled information from historical societies in Kansas and Tennessee as well as the Library of Congress, trying to find out more about what the experiences of “Exodusters” would have been like.
“I started getting an idea of what they faced and the dangers they faced. The Ku Klux Klan, there was literally mobs of white men who would go to the borders of the Tennessee counties to try to keep the people in because they didn’t want to lose their labor,” Lassieur said.
That experience plays into Hattie’s story, which Lassieur tells through prose as well as diary entries and letters.
“One of the things that I was especially struck by when I was doing this research is the strength of the people that said ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I’m not being treated fairly. I have no future here,’” Lassieur said, “It was really important to me that her family have the dignity and strength that I kept reading about.”
Since it first hit bookstore shelves in January, it’s been met with glowing reviews. Kirkus praised it for filling in a major gap in history and doing so through a convincing story.
Currently, Lassieur is finishing up a book on John Adams and is working on a young adult novel.
But she’ll pause for a book signing at the Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery in Schenectady on Saturday, March 23. She’ll be at the bookstore from 1-2:30 p.m. For more information visit opendoor-bookstore.com.
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