Jane Pittman was born into slavery on a plantation in Louisiana. In the past, Jane's slave name was "Tice y." Jane grew up without parents because her mother died when she was still young and she knew little about her father. As a preteen, Jane worked in a large house, caring for white children. On a scorching day near the end of the war, exhausted confederate soldiers paid a visit, followed soon after by Union soldiers. As Jane was serving the soldiers water, a Union soldier, Corporal Brown, told Jane that she will soon be free and can then visit him in Ohio.
He tells her to change her slave name to "Jane." The changing of her name symbolized a changing of lifestyle; no longer would she be recognized as a slave, but as an actual human-being with an identity of her own. The owner of the slaves on the plantation freed them all, including Jane. Jane and the freed slaves left the plantation. They " re destination was undecided, but a woman named Big Laura lead the group. Jane thought about going to Ohio to find Corporal Brown.
While sleeping in a farm house, the Ku Klux Klan barged in and killed everyone, except for Jane and a young boy named Ned. Ned happened to be the son of Big Laura. Jane and Ned continued on their own, heading towards Ohio. They met a few people on their trip who had some sympathy for blacks. They always told Jane that Ohio was too far, and that she should go back to the plantation. Jane and Ned became exhausted from their long journey.
One day, a white man named Job gave Jane and Ned a lift and allowed them to rest at his house, even though his wife disagreed with how her husband treated blacks hospitably. The next day, he took them to a plantation managed by Mr. Bone. Mr. Bone offered Jane a job, but believed her to be incapable of handling the work; however, Jane convinces Mr. Bone that she is capable of handling the work and he agrees to pay her six dollars a month, minus the fifty cents that went toward Ned's education.
Later, the original owner of the plantation, Colonel Dye, buys back the plantation with the money he borrowed from the Yankees. Many black people began fleeing the south when they saw that their conditions were worsening. Ned, at age 17, joined a committee that helped blacks leave the southern area. Colonel Dye warned Jane to stop Ned from helping the blacks in their escape from southern living, but when she refused, Ku Klux Klan members arrived at Jane's house. Ned fled the plantation later that night, but Jane didn't want to leave her secure life. Ned travels to Kansas and joins the U.
S. Army to fight in the Cuban war. Jane soon marries Joe Pittman without an official ceremony. Joe and Jane move to a ranch near the Texas-Louisiana border where Joe breaks horses for a living.
Jane dreams about Joe being thrown from a horse. Soon after, Jane sees a black stallion which resembled the horse from her dream. Jane frees the horse, but Joe is killed while chasing after it. After a few years pass, Jane moves to another part of Louisiana, but after awhile she becomes lonely. Ned returns to where Jane is, and brings his wife, Vivian, and three young children with him. He buys a house and starts building a school.
At the school, he teaches ideas about the political rights of blacks. The local whites fear Ned's teachings, and they hire someone Jane knows, Albert Cluveau, to shoot Ned. After Ned's death, Jane tells Cluveau that the chariot of hell will come for him. Cluveau does not die for almost another ten years. When he finally does he screams for three days before dying. Jane moves to the Samson plantation.
Robert Samson runs the plantation with his wife, Miss Amma Dean, and their son, Tee Bob. Samson also had another son with a black woman named Verd a. Timmy and Tee Bob were close friends, even though Robert and Miss Amma expected Timmy to be subservient to his brother because he was black. Timmy is beaten by a white man, Tom Joe. Robert Samson gives Timmy money and tells him to leave the plantation. Later in his life, Tee Bob falls in love with a schoolteacher, Mary Agnes LeF arbre.
His friends and family remind him that a white man cannot love a black woman; however, he visits her in the evening and asks her to marry him. After she tells him that his plan is impossible, he returns home and commits suicide. Tee Bob's stepfather reads a letter that states that Mary Agnes is not to blame for the death of Tee Bob. Near the end of the book, Jane talks about Jimmy Aaron which was one of Tee Bob's good friends. The elders on the plantation want Jimmy to become a religious leader, but because of the changes in Civil Rights, he becomes more interested in politics. Eventually, Jimmy returns home and plans an act of civil disobedience followed by a protest at the courthouse; a young girl is arrested for drinking from a white water fountain.
After the girl is arrested, Jane speaks with Mary Hodges, who lives with her, and Lena, Jimmy's aunt. Lena fears that Jimmy will be killed. When Monday morning comes, Jane, Mary, and Lena gather outside. Suddenly Jane sees a whole crowd of people walking toward them. Jane feels so proud that she starts to cry. Just as the crowd is coming though, a car driven by Robert Samson appears.
When Lena sees him, she looks grieved. Samson tells them that Jimmy was shot dead that morning at eight o'clock. Lena falls to the ground, wailing. Samson tells them to go home and forget it about it. One young man, Alex, says that those people who want to go to Bayonne will still go.
Others look confused, but Jane takes the lead. She urges everyone to follow her. She stares down Robert Samson as she walks off with Alex. With the crowd behind her, they headed to the courthouse.