Karolyn Smardz Frost spent ten years researching for and writing this book, and it shows. The story centers around a woman named Cecelia Jane Reynolds, but there are many, many other interesting and amazing people and events happening in this book. So many names and dates, and I wanted to absorb and remember every one of them. Her passion for this subject and for this woman is inspiring.
One of the reasons I liked this story of Cecelia was because of the fact that she was an ‘ordinary’ woman in the sense that she was not well-known for her flight to freedom and is not one of the many men and women we hear about in connection with the Underground Railroad. In her Introduction, Frost tells us that “Cecelia is one of the uncounted millions who never made it into the history books but whose accomplishments demonstrate the dizzying heights of which human beings are capable when being faced with implacable adversity. As Cecelia’s story proves, there are no ordinary people.”
Cecelia was the maid of a girl a few years older than herself, in the city of Louisville Kentucky. She was treated considerably “well” and was close to her owner (Fanny). As lady’s maid, she enjoyed perks such as traveling around the country and wearing Fanny’s fashionable cast-offs. She was also enslaved in the same household as her own family, and although she had to endure the selling of her father at the age of six (which was traumatic), her mother and brother were always close by. So, relatively speaking, she was treated “well”, although there was always the threat of being sold south to the plantations hanging over their heads. Despite knowing what she would be giving up and not really knowing where she would end up, she took the risk of leaving behind everything she knew and loved, to have the chance to be free.
In 1846, at the age of fifteen, Cecelia escaped across the Niagara into Canada, ending up in the city of Toronto where there was a vibrant community of both fugitive and free African Americans and African Canadians. There she married Benjamin Pollard Holmes, one of the men who helped get her across the river.
No one will ever know how many people owed their liberty to brave souls like Benjamin Pollard Holmes who engineered their crossing into Canada, or how many rejoiced in the warm reception they met because of women like Cecelia.
After the death of her husband in 1859, Cecelia moved herself and her young daughter to Rochester, NY right before the start of the Civil War. She married a man named William Henry Larrison, and they remained together until his disappearance in 1883.
As for Cecelia, the decisions she made in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death were dramatic and had profound consequences for both herself and her five-year-old daughter. They would be living in the United States when the Civil War broke out, and Cecelia’s choices would carry them both into the very heart of the conflict.
Unfortunately for Cecelia, she didn’t know what we know now about the Civil War and its aftermath. She had to make some tough decisions about what she thought would be best for her family at the time; decisions that would be hard even today. Cecelia eventually makes her way back to Louisville where her former owner, Fanny, still lived. She is finally re-united with her mother whose freedom she was never able to buy, despite years of working and saving. And she is also re-united with Fanny, in the hopes that her connections in society might help to get Cecelia and her husband some employment. Despite the fact that Fanny claimed to feel close to Cecelia and wished for her happiness, she was unwilling, over the years, to let her mother go without payment, and, worse, when she dies she only leaves Cecelia a measly $100 and a black shawl to remember her by. By this time Cecelia was getting older, was losing her eyesight, and was barely getting by. Fanny had a lot of money to spare – $100 was nothing to her.
Using Cecelia’s story as a base, Karolyn Smardz Frost fills her book with all the major and minor events of any significance whatsoever about Black life in both Canada and the U.S. over the course of Cecelia’s life. There are an astounding number of details about all the people in and around Cecelia’s life; who they were, how they contributed to society, and where they lived. Cecelia’s life rubbed up against some well-known abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Soujourner Truth.
There seemed to be a lot of movement back then, something I wasn’t expecting; following prosperity, but also, in the case of African Americans and African Canadians, searching for places where they could live out their lives with a minimal amount of prejudice against them. A futile attempt.
I learned a lot from this book [warning: onslaught of ‘fascinating-to-me’ information]; the lesser-known names of both black and white abolitionists, early laws surrounding antislavery in both Canada and the U.S., popular spots along the Underground Railroad, the economic and political landscape over the years, the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), the attraction of the Australian gold rush, the history of immigration in Toronto, more details about the Civil War (such as the fact that black men were not allowed at first to fight in the war, and that 2500 African Canadians crossed the border to help fight), and the fact that “Kentucky’s postwar history of assault on its newly freed African American population was among the cruelest in US history“. But the thing that struck me the most was the realization that racism in North America seemed to get worse over the years rather than better. Anger and resentment in the white community seemed to increase dramatically after the Civil War and laws meant to help protect African Americans were ignored without consequence. Things got even worse as more immigrants arrived in both the U.S. and Canada, resulting in greater competition for jobs and space.
Typically for those who followed the paths of the Underground Railroad out of the slave South, the most tangible legacy left behind by Cecelia Jane Reynolds and the two good men she married was their children. Brought up under the proverbial law of the British lion, they flowered into adults who were fully prepared to take their place in a civil society that recognized both their humanity and their right to self-determination. These hopes were not to be realized in their day, nor even in our own. But despite ongoing social and economic exclusion based on race, heirs to the freedom-seekers continue to agitate for the rights promised long ago in those brilliant, optimistic words set down by America’s Founding Fathers when they drafted the Declaration of Independence.
This book was written so we can all pay tribute to strong, incredibly resourceful women like Cecelia Jane Reynolds and to valiant, committed men like Benjamin Pollard Holmes and William Henry Larrison. They broke the chains that bound them and set out in search of a Promised Land.
Their memory cannot end with their deaths.
CBC Books: Karolyn Smardz Frost talks about how she first discovered Cecelia, how she researched Cecelia’s story, and how she stood in the basement of Cecelia’s house in Toronto.
CBC News: Archeologist unearths epic story of slavery and freedom in Toronto – Karolyn Smardz Frost talks about the 2015 excavation site of St. John’s Ward in Toronto, and how she came across the letters that led to research for her book, Steal Away Home.
Karolyn Smardz Frost is an historian, archaeologist and award-winning author. Her book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007) was the first book on African Canadian history to win the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.