An excellent and absorbing “American and Canadian story” of an inaugural passage aboard the Underground Railroad.
Canadian archaeologist Frost has spent months and traveled thousands of miles along back roads to trace the lives of runaway slaves, a search that she affectingly describes in the early pages of her book, helped along by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike, guarded by a “chivalrous hitchhiker” as she combed through a forgotten graveyard beside a freeway off ramp, threatened by devotees of the Old South. The fruits of that hard work are evident in this book, which reconstructs the lives and circumstances of a light-skinned young man named Thornton Blackburn and his wife, Lucie, who, the day before Independence Day 1833, presented forged documents allowing them passage from slaveholding Kentucky into free Indiana and steamed away on a paddle-wheeler from Louisville, never to return. They eventually made their way to Toronto, where the ambitious and intelligent couple became middle-class householders, he a cab driver, she a moneylender. Theirs was a daring escape, to be sure, but Frost puts it in a larger context of resistance in many ways; by her account, slave resistance to the point of insurrection and guerrilla warfare was common, so much so that “wise slaveholders turned a blind eye to minor infractions” in order to quiet discontent. Having wrested some freedom of movement, slaves in cities along the Ohio River came into contact with free blacks, some of whom formed part of the network of abolitionists who served the underground movement to help runaway slaves reach freedom. Frost is adamant, however, that the heroes here are Thornton and Lucie, whose deed was forgotten but who “changed the very world in which they lived.”
A most worthy addition to the literature surrounding American slavery, complementing Mary Kay Ricks’s Escape on the Pearl and Mat Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot, both to be published in February 2007.