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Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Tales of the Underground Railroad

Special to The Seattle Times

"I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad"
by Karolyn Smardz Frost
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
456 pp., $30

"From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad"
by Jacqueline L. Tobin with Hettie Jones
Doubleday, 174 pp., $24.95

"Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad"
by Mary Kay Ricks
Morrow, 432 pp., $25.95

Twenty-two years ago, archaeologists digging in a Toronto schoolyard unearthed the remains of a home once occupied by a fugitive slave couple named Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. Karolyn Smardz Frost, who directed the dig, was inspired by the find to spend much of the next two decades tracing their history. "I've Got a Home in Glory Land" is the result.

The Blackburns' heroic tale is in many ways typical of the Underground Railroad, the covert system by which thousands of slaves fled the South for freedom in Canada. Lucie Blackburn was about to be "sold south" and separated from her husband, so the couple somehow obtained forged papers and made an audacious daytime escape from Louisville, Ky., aboard a steamboat. They reached Detroit safely, only to be jailed when Thornton's "owners" later tried to reclaim him. Members of the local anti-slavery community managed to smuggle Lucie out of jail, and Thornton was freed by an angry crowd.

After being safely reunited in Canada, the Blackburns were arrested again on an extradition warrant. Canadian authorities denied extradition, however, and the couple eventually settled in Toronto, where Thornton established the city's first cab company and the couple prospered. Their story is the centerpiece of Frost's book.

"Midnight" was the Underground Railroad's code name for Detroit, and "Dawn" was a Canadian community where many fugitives settled. Together they inspired the title of "From Midnight to Dawn," by Jacqueline Tobin and Hettie Jones.

Mostly a history of Canadian communities settled by escaped slaves and free blacks, the book also profiles some of their leading inhabitants. Among them: Josiah Henson, an escaped slave later identified with the "Uncle Tom" character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel and the first black citizen featured on a Canadian postage stamp; Mary Ann Shadd, North America's first black female newspaper editor; and Henry Bibb, a fugitive slave who wrote a powerful autobiography.

" 'Reader, believe me when I say that no tongue, nor pen ever has or ever can express the horrors of American slavery,' " Bibb wrote. " 'I learned the art of running away to perfection. I made a regular business of it, and never gave it up, until I had broken the bands of slavery, and landed myself safely in Canada, where I was regarded as a man, and not as a thing.' "

"Escape on the Pearl" tells the remarkable story of the Edmonson family of Washington, D.C., especially two daughters, Mary and Emily. Their father was a free black, but their mother was a slave; under the law of the time, that meant all their children were slaves, too.

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On an April night in 1848, five Edmonson children, including the teenaged Mary and Emily, joined more than 70 other slaves aboard the schooner Pearl in a daring escape attempt. They made it down the Potomac River as far as Chesapeake Bay before wind forced the schooner into a sheltered cove, where it was overtaken by pursuers.

What followed is an incredible story of crushing disappointments and hair-raising escapes stretching all the way from the slave pens of New Orleans to a New England fishing village. With tireless help from northern friends and supporters, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe, all but one of the Edmonsons eventually purchased freedom or escaped. One son remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War.

Author Mary Kay Ricks is a better storyteller than Frost, Tobin and Jones, but her tale, like the others, suffers in the telling. That's because the authors of all three books chose to overlay these highly dramatic escape accounts with seemingly endless recitals of anti-slavery conventions, meetings, rallies, editorials, resolutions, fundraising campaigns, and so on — the mundane but necessary day-to-day work of providing support and infrastructure for the Underground Railroad. As part of the collective history of an enslaved race trying to escape oppression with the only means it had, this material richly deserves documentation. But it also makes for heavy reading and drains some of the impact from these heroic tales of escapes on the Underground Railroad.

That doesn't make them any less worth reading, however — especially during Black History month.

Steve Raymond, a former Seattle Times editor, reviews American history and historical fiction for the Times. He lives on Whidbey Island.

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