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Cecelia and Fanny

The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress

Brad Asher

Publication Year: 2011

Cecelia was a fifteen-year-old slave when she accompanied her mistress, Frances “Fanny” Thruston Ballard, on a holiday trip to Niagara Falls. During their stay, Cecelia crossed the Niagara River and joined the free black population of Canada. Although documented relationships between freed or escaped slaves and their former owners are rare, the discovery of a cache of letters from the former slave owner to her escaped slave confirms this extraordinary link between two urban families over several decades. Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress is a fascinating look at race relations in mid-nineteenth-century Louisville, Kentucky, focusing on the experiences of these two families during the seismic social upheaval wrought by the emancipation of four million African Americans. Far more than the story of two families, Cecelia and Fanny delves into the history of Civil War–era Louisville. Author Brad Asher details the cultural roles assigned to the two women and provides a unique view of slavery in an urban context, as opposed to the rural plantations more often examined by historians.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Title page

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Copyright page

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List of illustrations

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p. viii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

I first became interested in the life of Cecelia Reynolds, later Cecelia Holmes, still later Cecelia Larrison, when I discovered a collection of letters that Mrs. Frances Thruston Ballard had written to her, an escaped slave living in Canada. Why, I wondered, would an ex–slave mistress write to a former slave? ...

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Chapter 1. Eight Minutes from Freedom

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pp. 1-17

In far western New York State, the short but powerful Niagara River divides the United States from Canada. For fugitive slaves seeking to escape bondage, that international boundary marked the frontier between slavery and freedom. About midway through its course, at Niagara Falls, the river plummets spectacularly over a ...

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Chapter 2. Fanny: Learning to Be a Slave Owner

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pp. 18-40

It took Fanny and her father a little time to discover that Cecelia had fled. When they did, it must have seemed incomprehensible. Why would this slave, so kindly treated, so much a part of the family, have absconded? When, years later, Fanny’s son wrote about Cecelia’s escape, he described his grandfather as “very angry” and ...

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Chapter 3. Cecelia: Learning about Being a Slave

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pp. 41-56

Cecelia learned about slavery from the same sources as Fanny— family stories, parental advice, and direct observation. However, it is much more difficult to piece together the elements of Cecelia’s education—given the lack of documentation—than Fanny’s. In contrast to the vivid family history of the Thrustons, very little is ...

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Chapter 4. Fanny: A Woman's Place

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pp. 57-74

When Fanny returned to Louisville from Niagara Falls, not much in her life had really changed. She was still the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected father, returning home to the city where she had been born, to the house on Walnut Street where she had always lived. With the escape of Cecelia, she had lost a personal maid but ...

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Chapter 5. Cecelia: A Family in Freedom

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pp. 75-100

During that fateful spring of 1846, the slave Cecelia emerged on the other side of the Niagara River as the free woman Cecelia Jane Reynolds. How and why she picked those middle and last names is a mystery. Perhaps it was the name of someone significant from her Canada. Whatever the source, choosing a name of one’s own was a ...

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Chapter 6. Fanny: The CIvil War in Louisville

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pp. 101-121

As Cecelia moved south, Fanny stayed put. She continued to live in her father’s house on Walnut Street, devoting herself to her husband and children. In 1860, after Cecelia’s husband had died and young children in Louisville. Her youngest son—Rogers Clark—was just two years old; Samuel was five; Abby, the only girl, was ...

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Chapter 7. Cecelia: A New Life in Rochester

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pp. 122-141

While Fanny weathered the war in her childhood home, the now widowed Cecelia left Canada in early 1861 with Mamie, Benjamin, and James Thomas in tow. She was again part of a larger stream of African American migration, as she had been when she fled to Canada in the 1840s. With the onset of the Civil War, many black refugees ...

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Chapter 8. Fanny: Postwar Trials

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pp. 142-162

Andrew’s post as court clerk and Louisville’s deliverance from wartime devastation had enabled the Ballards to pass the war years with their lifestyle relatively intact. Their family house was unscathed; their income was steady and adequate; their sons—too young to join the fight—had been spared the horrors of combat. ...

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Chapter 9. Cecelia: Back in Louisville

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pp. 163-182

Cecelia realized few of her postwar hopes. It is nice to think that she returned to Louisville, found her mother, Mary, and began a new life of freedom with her family restored in the Falls City, but no evidence supports this happy ending. Indeed, in the period immediately after the war, the Larrisons disappear from the archival record. ...

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Conclusion: The Bonds of Slavery

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pp. 183-188

According to the official record of her death, Cecelia was born in 1846, the same year she claimed her freedom from slavery at Niagara Falls. Perhaps, as Lincoln said of the nation at Gettysburg, Cecelia experienced a “new birth” when she shed her slave status, or perhaps Mamie—who was doubtless the source of this information ...

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pp. 189-190

A book is always a collective project. My collective has included the ever-helpful archivists at the repositories I consulted. The staff at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, where I first became interested in the stories of Cecelia and Fanny, was unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable. I also thank the Filson for permission to ...


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pp. 191-212


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pp. 213-222


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pp. 223-227

E-ISBN-13: 9780813134154
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813134147

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 7 b&w photos, 3 illustrations, 6 maps
Publication Year: 2011