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A Journey to Freedom

~by Lillyanne Jones~

The Story of Aunt Elsie Brooks

Good morning everyone! I am pleased to welcome you on my tour through historical Ithaca, New York. I will cover one of the many networks you all will encounter that include places, people, documents, artifacts, and events from the colonial era that put this small town on the map of historical significance: The Underground Railroad. Ithaca was one of the stops along the Underground Railroad that conductors, like the famous Harriet Tubman, used to help free slaves escape to Canada. In fact, I will take you to one of the stops Tubman herself used right here in Ithaca, but first, it is important to understand the pressing need these slaves had to escape to New York and Canada. 

            By now I am sure that you all are aware of the history surrounding the Underground Railroad, slavery, and the conditions slaves had to endure that led to their eventual desire for freedom, but I will provide you with a brief background that specifically ties into the contents of my section of the tour: Slavery in the United States first began during the Colonial period when the British sailed to West Africa and took its people aboard their ships. These colonizers promised the captured Africans a new, better life. Instead, the colonizers took those they captured, brought them to newly discovered America, and used them for labor: something the colonizers were too proud to do themselves. The harsh labor these Africans, now labeled ‘slaves,’ endured ranged anywhere from working in the plantations to working in their slave master’s house. However, even though the jobs slaves did could be lighter, harder, harsher, or more dangerous, depending on the amount of humanity their masters possessed, the punishments they received if these slaves did not abide by their master’s orders were always cruel and laced with no mercy. 

            It was common for masters to withhold food, fail to provide the slaves with appropriate living conditions, and sanitary means to clean themselves, and even target the slaves’ family; but this was no punishment for the slaves. This was simply their daily life. If the master needed or desired, even just to blow off some steam onto their slaves, punishments could include public beatings or whippings of the slaves after stripping them naked, public lynchings, and other forms of public humiliation. The slaves around could do nothing to help without facing the same fate. Because these slaves suffered as much as they did, either from being captured into slavery or born into it, it is no wonder why they looked to God for salvation. Any form of hope that He may grant them, even if it felt futile, was enough to keep the slaves alive to see another day. It was enough for them to survive until God showed mercy on them and brought them to see their eventual freedom. It was this faith, this hope in God that was instilled in their hearts that kept the slaves going through such hardship until they were able to embark on a journey to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The document that I am about to show you all shows the hope for freedom that was instilled in the slaves and the mercy that was granted when they were emancipated; here, emancipation is represented by an angel.

            Right here, everyone, is the document in question: a jigsaw puzzle, called “America, or, the Emancipation of Slaves.”

Photographed by author: 1860’s Jigsaw Puzzle “America or The Emancipation of Slaves[1]

This jigsaw puzzle from the 1860s depicts a god-like woman releasing slaves from their enslavement.[2] During these times, slavery was everywhere in America, however, it was not so prevalent in the North, such as in New York and Canada. In New York particularly is where slaves sought refuge from what they had faced on the plantations. This jigsaw puzzle summarizes the struggles of these slaves before they were liberated by the White goddess that represents American emancipation through the Underground Railroad. 

            It is important to understand that the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a series of paths through dense forests, hot plains, and along rivers that led slaves from the bottom of the South to the tip of the North and through Canada. The conditions of the Underground Railroad were less than pleasant: slaves who took this journey had to walk for miles each day for weeks with nothing except the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry. These ‘freedom seekers’ as they are now called could not take a bath, had hardly any food, barely slept, and relied on the generosity and trust of others along the way to keep their escape a secret, until they reached their destination of freedom. These freedom seekers used their faith in God as fuel to survive to reach freedom. 

            Now, with all that said, the physical condition of the jigsaw is reminiscent of the journey the freedom seekers took along the Underground Railroad. We can see watermarks along the bottom edge, specifically on the panel of the German translation of the title “America, or, the Emancipation of Slaves,” and slight fading throughout the entire document. However, even with the imperfections, the images remained clear, similar to how the path to freedom remained clear to the slaves even with the less than perfect conditions the Underground Railroad offered. 

            Even though this document is simply a jigsaw puzzle, there are many symbols embedded in it. The White Goddess or angel, for example, symbolizes America as the Emancipator of the slaves. It is said that that goddess is actually the Greek goddess Nike, the goddess of victory.[3]  The woman carries broken shackles, symbolizing the slaves being both physically free from the chains they would wear on their wrist and ankles on the plantations, and mentally free from being trapped by their master. This same master who owned these slaves, never knew their real names, never knew where they came from or if they had families. He never bothered to treat them like decent human beings, and instead treated these slaves like property. The broken shackles, like I said, represent the freedom these slaves had from all of that. The angel carries an ivy branch that represents the unity and fidelity between white abolitionists and slaves.[4] The rest of the puzzle pays a homage to the sufferings I mentioned before that slaves had to endure before they were free. 

            With that, it is important to let this document resonate within yourself, save it, study it, and reflect on it to understand the struggles these slaves faced. Only by doing this we can all begin to grapple with just how far these freedom seekers were willing to go to obtain just that: freedom. This document teaches us that even when there seems to be infinite darkness, someone somewhere by the grace of God will you grant you light. For these slaves, the Underground Railroad represented this grace. 

            Now that we have seen this document, everyone, we are still left with many questions: Why a jigsaw puzzle in the first place? When we think of a jigsaw we think of an activity to do with families, so does that imply that the creator of the jigsaw intended for it to be played, intending to start a discussion amongst families about slavery? If so, then does that mean its creator was against slavery and wanted his message to be spread? Was the jigsaw, then, popular? If it was, does that mean that those buying it were in support of the Emancipation Proclamation? Did the issuing of the jigsaw puzzle spark backlash against the  former or recently freed slaves? We may never know the answer to any of these questions. But that is why historians, people like myself, are here; we ask the hard questions and we search until we find an answer. For these questions particularly, an investigation on the jigsaw itself, its creator, and its buyers would be needed. Then this information would be cross-referenced with any documentation that depicts the political affiliation of the buyers and those that sold the jigsaw puzzle. If you ask me, I think a person for anti-slavery, such as a member of the New York Vigilance Committee, which is a committee established in 1835 that promoted the antislavery message, created the jigsaw and wanted a sneaky way to share his beliefs with the public.[5] But, like I said, a much further investigation would need to be done. 

            Alright then everyone, that was the first stop on my part of the Underground Railroad Tour through Ithaca! Out next stop is the spot were a famous messenger for the Underground Railroad resided and used to house slaves on their way to northern parts of New York and Canada: Aunt Elsie Brooks’ house.  


            Everyone! We have arrived at Aunt Elsie Brooks’ house, or the place in which her house would have stood, but I will get into that in a minute. 

            Before she came to Ithaca, Elsie was a slave: born into it in fact in West Virginia.[6] Elsie was brought to her mistress, Amy Furness, in 1811, and when slavery was abolished in the State of New York in 1827, Elsie moved to Ithaca and took on her mistress’s lastname. It was here in Ithaca that she met and married her husband, Jacob Brooks, in 1835.[7] From here, Elsie Brooks, eventually earned the name Aunt Elsie, and worked as a laundress. It is presumed that this is how she came to become a known Underground Railroad messenger for the slaves. 

            When word spread that masters were traveling to the North to try and illegally wrangle back up their slaves, Aunt Elsie was very open about how she felt. She made sure all the townspeople in Ithaca knew of her feelings pertaining to this matter, and it was because of these feelings that she became one of the Underground Railroad messengers. Working as a washerwoman ended up being the best way to disguise her side job, since she was older and no one really paid any mind to the gossip old washerwomen spoke of. 

            It is rumored that since her house was directly next to the famous St. James AME Zion Church, she used her home to keep slaves until they were ready to travel to Canada. Because of this rumor, we ranked Aunt Elsie Brooks’ house as a Level Two on the Wellman Scale. Essentially, this means that there is no physical evidence proving this house’s link to the Underground Railroad, but stories of Aunt Elsie’s residence housing slaves have been passed down. Therefore, we should attribute some truth to the legend. In fact, it was common during this time for those associated with the Underground Railroad to keep records, or at least a journal, of the events that transpired under the guide’s watch. Because of this, it is presumed that Aunt Elsie did something similar. With that, after studying the journals of other conductors and guides for the Underground Railroad, I have created what would have been excerpts of Aunt Elsie’s journal, should she have kept one. This particular excerpt that I chose to share with you would have been her last before she died of a lasting cold in 1875. 

1 March 1875

            I can tell this is it. I went through hell and back since the day I was born with no breaks in between and it is this damn cold that will be the result of my undoing. I can feel it in my bones. My head has yet to stop throbbing like it was knocked against a tree and my body feels like that time when I was caught trying to sneak out of Mistress Furness’s plantation and was whipped until my skin cracked and bled. Only that time I could still keep my head up and stand. 

            I have not been able to lift my head or stand on my own two feet for days. All this laying around has me feeling all types of feelings. Helpless: because so long as I am here, I am not out there washing away, earning a living, getting the newest information on the residual slaves who still need help. Just because slavery was outlawed does not mean that those White folks must abide by it. But even with the blasted fact that I cannot walk myself to the jon, laying here has me feeling safe: I am free and made something of myself helping those just like me. Laying here, in this well-lit room, with windows, with my daughter who comes to check on me and makes sure I get a proper meal, even though I can barely take two bites, has me remembering the events that got me to where I am now. 

            Like the time I became a washerwoman because I needed to pay the bills, put food on the table, and make clothes for my foster daughter so that she does not look like she came from nothing like me. I became a washerwoman to make sure we both survive after her daddy died. 

            I took the job because it was the only thing I knew how to do and do well, and I damn well was getting paid for something I did every day. I went door to door at first. Asking, begging, if anyone needed someone to wash their clothes. Blacks and Whites, I did not care. There is no such thing as being picky and discriminating like them White folks when it is your child’s life hanging in the balance.

            In my first week, I was employed by five families. By my fifth month, word spread and I was employed by all but five families, and that is because those families already had a washerwoman. I like to think these people were paying me because they liked to hear me sing when I folded their clothes and put them away, not just because I was their maid and they needed me. But I would never know, and some parts of me think it would be better that way. 

            I remember the first time I got some information about the Underground Railroad. I did not know that that piece of paper was so important at the time, but I will admit, when I did, it changed my life. 

            I was washing a dress for a little White girl’s coming of age celebration. I do not remember her name, as she was my employer and I was not about to get caught up in something I have no business getting caught up in. I remember having to be extra careful around the hem of the dress because it was just dyed an ocean blue and if I scrubbed too hard on the washboard the color would have bled and washed off. I remember paying mind to the shabby-looking Black boy who stood around as if he was looking for something, and asked if he needed help finding it. He looked at me with what now I can only assume to have been relief, before coming towards me real slow, holding out his hand. I held my hand out, thinking he was blind because he had yet to actually look at me in the eyes, only to have him take his other hand, lift mine up, place a sheet of paper in it, ball my hand into a fist, and runoff. I remember the tails of his clothes flapping around as he ran and I remember reading the piece of paper: “Once you have found God, he will show you the right path to freedom.” I thought nothing of it, put the note in the pocket inside of my bonnet and continued on with my washing. 

            It was not until I dropped off that dress to that little girl that I heard her father talking to someone important about people working for the conductors leaving clues to the whereabouts of the Underground Railroad. It clicked. “Once you have found God, he will show you the right path to freedom:” that was not some verse from a sermon, not some quoted scripture, it was directions for people traveling through the Underground Railroad. But I had no idea what it meant. I bid my leave to the little girl and her family and headed home. 

            As I walked home, I stared at that piece of paper, trying to make sense of it. Surely that boy giving this message to me was a sign from God, but I did not know how to read His message. It was not until I heard the church bells ring for 6 o’clock dinner that I made the connection. I immediately took the piece of paper to the pastor, who confirmed my thoughts, and my role as messenger began. 

            To tell the truth, I do not know why I was the one who received the information and not any other washerwoman that day. I was not the only one there. But I like to take that luck as a sign from God: my purpose for this world. The fact that my messages saved the lives of so many and the fact that the pastor allowed me to help him take them in, is the biggest blessing. 

            I always knew that my life would not end back on that plantation in West Virginia, that my role was not to just do what I was told and receive scars for doing just that. I knew there was another purpose, a higher purpose, for me. I am glad I had that hope. 

            I am glad I got married and have a daughter. I am glad I helped people. 

            I am glad I became a washerwoman. 

            I am glad I stayed a washerwoman until the very end. 


            It can be said, folks, that Aunt Elsie Brooks was quite the character who went through terrible times. But it can also be said that she carried those times with her and found a way to transform them into something good. Right here, next to the Zion Church, is an empty lot that was previously 24 Wheat Street. It is said this was Aunt Elsie’s residence before she died in 1875. It is not clear why Aunt Elsie’s house was condemned, but I believe that because her house was right next to the Zion Church which was the epicenter for slaves traveling through the North, her belongings and the like associated with the Underground Railroad were stored there. 

            Not much else is known about Aunt Elsie and the role her house played in the Underground Railroad. What can be deduced is that Aunt Elsie was a woman who did not let her beliefs get in the way of doing what she could to help, even if she risked being recaptured into slavery as well; something that is said to be of a common trait for those who helped slaves in the Underground Railroad.[8] Like I mentioned before, it would be no surprise if someone finds out in the future that Aunt Elsie was a part of the anti-slavery organization, the New York Vigilance Committee. One of their objectives was to prevent slaves from being recaptured and brought back into slavery, something Aunt Elsie would have prided herself of. Aunt Elsie would have been a member of this committee for the sole reason of its purpose of helping runaway slaves become free. 

Photograph of Aunt Elsie Brooks: From a newspaper article about her funeral[9]

            That concludes my part of the Tour of the Underground Railroad through Ithaca, everyone! I hope that by analyzing that jigsaw puzzle, hearing about Aunt Elsie and the work she did for runaway slaves, as well as visiting the spot where her house stood, you all gained a sense of how the Underground Railroad impacted those escaping to Ithaca from the South. By learning about these places, people, and documents, we are keeping the many brave and heroic stories of the Underground Railroad alive. These events and figures will continue to be an important part of American History that cannot be forgotten. The bravery that these slaves and people like Aunt Elsie showed should be a lesson for us to do the same, no matter what adversary we face. 

            I hope you all enjoyed my tour! Now I will take you all to your next tour guide, who will show you even more of what the Underground Railroad in Ithaca has to offer!


Christie’s. SLAVERY EMANCIPATION–JIGSAW PUZZLE. “America, or, The Emancipation of Slaves.”

Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. “”I will be heard!” Abolitionism in America.” Website of the exhibition on display from June 5 through September 27, 2003.

Foner, Eric. “Origins of the Underground Railroad: The New York Vigilance Committee.” In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, 56–80. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. 

Jigsaw Puzzle. “America, or, The Emancipation of Slaves.” Gift of Rita Guerlac. Ca. 1860s. In Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Sachse, Gretchen. “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996.” Tompkins County, 1996.

The History Center in Tompkins County. “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers. 2005.

The Joy of Plants. “Ivy.” N.d. Accessed May 1, 2022.

[1] Jigsaw Puzzle, “America, or, The Emancipation of Slaves,” gift of Rita Guerlac, ca. 1860s, in Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

[2] Christie’s, SLAVERY EMANCIPATION–JIGSAW PUZZLE, “America, or, The Emancipation of Slaves,”

[3] Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, “”I will be heard!” Abolitionism in America,” website of the exhibition on display from June 5 through September 27, 2003,

[4] The Joy of Plants, “Ivy,” n.d, accessed May 1, 2022,

[5] Eric Foner, “Origins of the Underground Railroad: The New York Vigilance Committee,” In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 56–80.

[6] Gretchen Sachse, “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996,” Tompkins County (1996), 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom,” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers, 2005.

[9] Ibid.