The main character in the book, Sarny, is a former slave who managed to learn to read and write while in captivity. She has a lifelong love and thirst for knowledge, and when freed builds a series of schools to educate other former slaves. Sarny's efforts are not looked upon kindly by her oppressors, but she responds to harrassment with brave determination, rebuilding her schools when they are burned down, and teaching until her health will no longer allow her to do so. This valiant woman lives a full life, and is married twice; first to a man named Martin who is dies of overwork, and then to a man named Stanley, who is killed when he bravely confronts the hooded men who burn down Sarny's school. Sarny and Martin have two children, Tyler and Delie.
Other important characters in the book include Lucy and Miss Laura. Lucy is a younger slave girl with whom Sarny takes to the road in the immediate aftermath of their emancipation. Lucy is a good girl, but tends to be flirtatious, and Sarny is vigilant in making sure she stays out of trouble. Miss Laura is a light-skinned woman who helps Sarny and Lucy by giving them jobs in her New Orleans home. Miss Laura is an enigma, and the truth about her is never revealed; although she appears to be white, she makes a comment which makes Sarny believe she might be part black.