Book about the Underground Railroad wins Ontario award

By Stephen Weir

Smardz Frost Photo by Bruce Dienes

Stranded in Florida recovering from a knee operation, author Karolyn Smardz Frost missed an important weekend prize ceremony in Toronto for her nonfiction book Steal Away Home: One Woman’s Epic Flight to Freedom – And Her Long Road Back to the South.  The book about a young woman’s escape from slavery, has just won the Ontario  Historical Society’s  J.J. Talman Award.

The prize is given to the best book about Ontario’s social, economic, political or cultural history which has been written in the previous three years.  This is the second award  Smardz Frost’s book. Earlier this year, she received the 2017 Speaker’s Book Award from  Dave Levac, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

Smardz Frost tells the true story of escaped slave, Cecelia Reynolds, and her flight of courage to Toronto. It was 1846 and she was a 15-year old teenager. When her owner brought her to Niagara Falls, New York she secretly contacted the Underground Railroad who helped her make a dangerous rowboat ride across the Niagara River to Canada.

Cecelia found a new life in Toronto’s vibrant African-American expatriate community. There she married her rescuer, learned how to read and write and began corresponding with her former owner – a relationship that would endure for more than two decades. She eventually returned to her original home in Kentucky and reunited with her mother. Cecelia also renewed her complicated relationship with her former owner who lived just a few blocks away.

“ When I received a letter of congratulation from Professor of History Ian Radforth, on behalf of the Ontario Historical Society, I knew I wouldn’t be physically able to travel to Toronto to receive the prize,”  Smardz Frost told the Caribbean Camera by phone from Florida. “I contacted my friends at the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) and president Natasha Henry was kind enough to attend the award announcement on my behalf.”

“ This isn’t an award about me. These are real stories about the men and women who came to Canada (via the Underground Railroad).  Without the work of the OBHS and the books, their histories would simply disappear.”

Smardz Frost is a historian, archaeologist, and professor of history.  She is also one of Canada’s top authorities on the Underground Railroad. In 1985 Smardz Frost led an archaeological dig of the Toronto home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn and later told their story in I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad which won her the 2007 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. She is the author of numerous articles on the Underground Railroad, and co-author of The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! and co-editor of Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage.

The award-winning author will soon be on her feet again and back at work. She splits her time between Acadian University in Wolfville, N.S.and the newly opened  Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center in New York State where she is the resident archaeologist.