First, I bawled like a baby. Then I got busy writing.
I'd been doing some genealogical research, Googling the names of my ancestors on my father's side. William Smallwood, the first of our branch of the family tree to step foot in America, had settled in Warsaw, New York. He was a prominent farmer and pillar of the community.
But he had a dangerous secret, I discovered. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
In 1849, he helped Eliza Jones, a seven year old slave girl, and her pregnant mother escape to freedom. The runaways hid for 22 days in a wooden box on the back of a horse-drawn produce cart, secretly traveling from Washington, D.C. to Warsaw. There, my family hid them at their home. Eliza's baby brother was born in my family's kitchen. The child was named Charles William, apparently in honor of my great-great-great-great grandfather Smallwood.
I burst into tears reading about it on the Warsaw Historical Society's website. My heart ached for brave young Eliza, and swelled with pride for the Smallwoods. Defying the brutal Fugitive Slave Law, my family had risked imprisonment, fines, and even worse – greedy slave hunters often showed no mercy – to save lives.
It wasn't just my family who helped, I learned. The entire community of Warsaw, mostly white farm folk, rallied around Eliza and her baby brother. When their mother died of tuberculosis not long after her escape, the people of Warsaw took the children in and raised them as their own. Eliza went on to marry an uncle of black activist W.E.B. Du Bois and became a beloved Warsaw citizen.
An extraordinary story – one that I've resolved cannot go untold. So now I’m writing it. Courageous Eliza whispers in my ear; I put it all down on the page.
In 2007, the manuscript's first few chapters earned a work-in-progress grant from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, for which I'm eternally grateful. Other book deadlines have kept me from completing the extensive research – I've found some amazing documents, including what I believe to be the 1849 escaped slave notice for Eliza and her mother – and the writing as of yet. But I vow to finish this book and find it a publishing home.
Then children across the country might learn of the remarkable Girl in the Box… and how an entire town of heroes acted in the name of what's right.
Causes Susan VanHecke Supports
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
National Trust For Historic Preservation