In honour of Black History Month, we spoke with Governor General's Award-winning historian and author Karolyn Smardz Frost about fugitive slave Cecelia Reynolds, and her journey to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
Canadian Living: Your book, Steal Away Home: One Woman's Epic Flight to Freedom — and Her Long Road Back to the South, opens at an excavation site in Toronto in 1985, which was the home of 15-year-old Cecelia, a former slave. How important was Toronto — and to a larger degree Ontario and Canada — during this time?
Karolyn Smardz Frost: The largest fugitive slave settlements are in what is now called Ontario. There was a very active community here — more people came and went in Toronto that records won't show. They were active in trying to end slavery and helping people get to Canada and then help them once they came. The community really stepped up.
I had a friend send me a photograph during the excavation process. I could see the foundation which was a whole city block [behind Toronto's City Hall] and knowing the history and heritage of that spot, I said, "that is the most important multicultural site to dig in Toronto!"
CL: When did you know that you wanted to tell the story of Cecelia's life?
KSF: I knew right away. I [came across] these five "friendly" letters…the only documents between a fugitive slave and her former mistress that spanned several years. And clearly Cecelia was writing to Fanny and she was answering. I believe this correspondence continued for 20 years. Fanny's son says there were more letters after his mother died but he didn't get them.
CL: Was Cecelia able to read and write?
KSF: She could read before she left Kentucky — it was one of the few places where it wasn't illegal to teach a slave to read and write. People often taught their slaves to read but not to write. Cecelia learned how to write in Toronto at night classes in the church basement, and there were eventually night-school classes through the Toronto School board.
CL: What did the two women talk about in their letters?
KSF: There was lots of family news because Fanny's father purchased Cecelia's mother.
CL: This is a complex relationship. What have you learned about them?
KSF: Fanny, the mistress and woman who became Cecelia's owner, was four-and-a-half years older than Cecelia and they had grown up together in the house since she was a baby. But it's certainly not an equal relationship.
CL: Was the purpose of the letters and correspondence to get her family back (which didn't happen) or did she want to keep in touch?
KSF: Ceceilia wanted to buy back her mother. Underneath all the affection and religious tone of the letters was the message that we're not selling your mom to you until we get the money. That is all the way through. No matter how affectionate those letters are, the cold hand of slavery is underneath all of it.
CL: What were Fanny's feelings towards slavery?
KSF: A letter around 1855 (six years before the civil war), Fanny wrote to Ceceilia, telling her that she thought slavery was a sin against God and that this evil in society can't continue. She also told her that if she came back to Kentucky, she would never enslave her again and understands why she needs to be free. Fanny kept a scrapbook with clippings of speeches by abolitionists in the Boston papers. She was a gently bred southern belle (she comes from two of the most important families in the southern United States — her mother's family are the Churchills from Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, and her other half is William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) but she also had a spine of steel. She married the man she wanted (who developed a drinking habit), and she managed money.
CL: Why has researching and writing about Canada's Underground Railroad been such important work for you?
KSF: I started out as an archaeologist, and I wanted to make it socially relevant. My father was a Polish National Holocaust survivor who escaped a concentration camp, my mother taught special education at an inner-city school in Toronto, and my grandmother was one of the people in Toronto who objected to the internment of the Japanese in WW2. So, I grew up in a household where social justice was just what you did. I wanted to bring meaning to history. When I first found the Blackburn site in 1985, that changed my life, and I wrote my previous book about that.
CL: How is writing a book as a historian different?
KSF: Historical nonfiction is a difficult genre to write because you're telling a story but you must be sure that every bit of that story is as true as you can make it. So, you're constrained in a way that other writers are not. It takes a long time to write like this.
CL: It's Black History Month, why do you think this story is so relevant?
KSF: At a time when people are thinking more about African-Canadian history than they might at other times, it brings it to public attention. There's an argument that we should certainly be doing this all year long and not just during this month. Cecelia's story is phenomenal — she chose freedom over slavery, and risked everything to achieve it at the age of 15. And, she organized this with help of Underground Railroad operators in advance of leaving for Niagara when there was no Internet, just letters and word of mouth. To go to another country knowing no one — I think that's remarkable.
CL: What lessons can we learn today from this history?
KSF: Resistance. Stand up and be counted. Choose freedom. I think of Cecelia as a woman who valued freedom above all else. She always chose freedom.