A harrowing escape, the love and loss of husbands and children, the Civil War, segregation, hatred and poverty.
It’s hard to believe that this is non-fiction.
This is the true story of slave Cecelia Reynolds, who escaped her Kentucky owners in 1846, and with the help of the Underground Railroad, crossed the Niagara River to Canada, and made her home Toronto. It is told in meticulous detail by archaeologist Karolyn Smardz-Frost, who has researched the life and times of this brave woman, using property records, marriage notices, newspaper articles, letters, and government documents of the time.
Cecelia was one of the hundreds of “fugitive slaves” who escaped to Canada, aided by the legendary Underground Railroad. In the overall course of her life, her actual escape was accomplished in about half an hour, but it is the complex, passionate life that followed which is both moving and inspiring.
Karolyn Smardz Frost spent eight years researching accounts of cruelty, compassion, terror and triumph, before taking another two years to weave this mountain of information into an astonishing narrative of Cecelia’s saga, and that of her new found friends and allies – the unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionist movement. Like Cecelia, these people never made it into the history books, but their actions and accomplishments demonstrate what human beings are capable of in the face of implacable adversity.
Cecelia Jane Reynolds is born into slavery in 1831. As a little girl, she is separated from her mother and given as a “gift” to Louisville socialite Fanny Thruston. When the Thruston family vacations in Niagara Falls, Cecelia reaches out to the Underground Railroad, who row her across the Niagara River to Canada, and freedom. She settles for a time in Toronto, and begins a correspondence with her former owner, in the hope of buying her mother’s freedom from the Thurston family. The price is high, and Cecelia’s struggle to raise the money takes her across the Atlantic to Liverpool, and back again to Rochester N.Y. into the battlefields of the civil war, and finally back to Louisville, where, now a free woman, she is reunited with her former owners. The personal cost was also high. She lost two husbands… the second most likely lynched, when the civil rights that were granted to Black America by the 14th amendment began to erode, opening the door for segregation, bigotry and the KKK. Undaunted, Cecelia and her contemporaries were among the voices for change in the world. They proved time and again through their industry, piety, and personal self improvement, that they were as worthy of citizenship as any white man. This despite the custom of the day being founded on white supremacist principles.
The destruction of body and of soul by the American slave system moves this story forward, but the book also sings with the joy, the love, and the incredible ingenuity of its characters, all of whom walked this earth just over a century ago.
How’s this for character?...
Remember that this is historical non-fiction. There are no actual “characters”, only real people of great character who weave their way in and out of Cecelia’s life, offering counsel, a place to stay, perhaps even a job, and always, giving generously of their friendship.
And then there is the character of our nation. Once on Canadian soil, these free slaves lived and worked amicably amongst their white hosts. George Brown started the ASC – the Anti-Slavery society of Canada. Branches of the ASC were established across the province, including an employment office set up on Front Street. Newspapers The Provincial Freeman and Voice of the Fugitive were published and circulated without censorship. There are many anecdotes of Canadian farmers and fishermen coming to the aid of slaves arriving on shore, prompting one local to say “We’re all abolitionists down here.”
“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome by trying to succeed”.
– Booker T Washington
If there is a theme to “Steal Away Home” surely this is it – individuals finding the moral certitude within themselves to triumph over adversity.
Karolyn Smardz Frost has dug deep into the soul of this extraordinary era by documenting the stories of ordinary people – their names and dates and their lifetime struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are moving accounts of perseverance in the face of segregation, and the poverty that came with it. The common thread through each person’s experience is the bond of friendship and devotion that is forged by their collective consciousness of living a subjugated existence. This is the heart and soul of this book, and it is the theme behind the factual accounts of men and women, born into the ugliest time in American history.
Years ago, I visited the Negro Burial Ground in Niagara on the Lake. I read the plaque about the Underground Railroad, and I thought to myself “How wonderful to escape slavery, and live free happily ever after”.
To use an epithet from the era – My understanding of their existence was “as shallow as a slave’s grave.”
Karolyn Smardz Frost has given me a win/win read – both a gripping saga and a profound learning experience. Reading Steal Away Home, I came to realize just how little I knew or understood about this hard won, still raw culture that has become such an integral part of our social fabric.
I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry. I just read on with my mouth open.
I was intrigued, enraged, engaged, and informed. And I was moved. Very moved.
And when I put the book down, I was changed.
Grey County Reads is a county-wide reading program involving seven local libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey. Five local celebrities advocate for five Canadian books.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments posted on SouthGrey.ca.
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