Eight minutes—that’s how long it took an escaped slave to reach the Canadian side of the Niagara River from the U.S. side. In 1846, 20-year-old Louisville native Fanny Thurston Ballard accompanied her family on a vacation to Niagara Falls, bringing her personal slave, 15-year-old Cecelia, with her. The Thurstons never imagined their submissive Cecelia would be daring enough to make the short trip across the choppy Niagara River to reach the freedom that awaited all escaped slaves in Canada, but this is exactly what the courageous young girl did.
In the epic true story of Cecelia and Fanny, historian Brad Asher examines the unusual relationship between slave holder and former slave. Cecelia entered the bonds of slavery as an infant, and grew up as a household slave in urban Louisville, but at 9 she was “gifted” by Mr. Thurston to his daughter, Fanny. Prior to becoming Fanny’s property, Cecelia and Fanny were childhood friends.
Years after her escape, Cecelia contacts Fanny to inquire about her family members who remain in Louisville—a brave act that finally unites these two unlikely companions. For the next several decades, Cecelia and Fanny exchange letters, and this correspondence illustrates these women were bound more by friendship than slavery. In fact, rather than condemn Cecelia for her “disobedience” in fleeing to Canada, Fanny acknowledges why Cecelia was justified in her escape, “I often think of you Cecelia; … you were the companion of my childhood, I can never forget you, and far from reproaching you for leaving me, I think and always thought, it is a very natural desire for the slave to be free,” she wrote in an August 1855 letter.
Asher’s well-written and poignant book opens a new chapter in slave narratives and takes readers through Kentucky’s multifaceted history with slavery. Cecelia and Fanny presents a succinct examination of the aftermath of the ghoulish institution and what the abolishment of slavery meant for those suddenly thrust into freedom. Asher thoughtfully examines the social roles white and black women were assigned in this era. Beyond the story of enduring friendship, Cecelia and Fanny is an honest look at pre- and post-Civil War Kentucky, the race and gender politics of the region—and America.
— Journey McAndrews