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Chicago Illinois

September 1888

Thirty-two year old, Olivia Sterling was running away from home. Well, she would be just as soon as she took one last look around her dimly lit bedroom. It was the middle of the night so she didn't dare turn up the lamp for fear of being discovered, but she couldn't afford to leave anything important behind; once she exited the house there would be no return.

Olivia didn't notice anything else that she needed to take with her, but for a few melancholy moments, her eyes lingered over her familiar bed and furnishings. This had been her room; a place of refuge, a place where she could spin her dreams and not have them snatched away by convention or society. After tonight she might never see it again but told herself, it was the price to be paid for her decision.

With nothing left to delay her departure, Olivia doused the lone lamp, plunging the room into darkness. She grabbed up her black cloak, laid it over her arm and carried her blue carpet bag to the door. The bag had been purchased specifically for her journey. Inside were a few changes of clean clothing, underwear, her toiletries, and her sketch pad and pens.

She very carefully opened the door. But for the ticking of her mother's grandfather clock, the dark hall was silent.

She stepped out, then slowly eased her bedroom door closed again. She stood there for a long moment to make certain she hadn't been heard. Confident she hadn't, she moved quickly but soundlessly to the stairs that led down to the main floor of the house. On the way she passed the door to her father's bedroom. His snores were easy to hear even through the thick cherry wood. Her mother's door was closed too, as it always was. As long as Olivia could remember, she'd never known them to share a room, a fact no proper daughter should be concerned with according to society, but Olivia did have concerns and they were part and parcel of why she was running away.

Olivia made it down the stairs without being detected. As planned, her mother, Eunice, dressed in her night robe stood waiting by the front door. They embraced. Basking in her mother's strong hug, Olivia felt tears sting her eyes. It was unclear whether she'd ever see her mother again, so Olivia held onto her for as long as she could.

Eventually, they had to part, and Olivia wiped at her teary eyes with a gloved hand. Keeping her voice low, she said to her mother, “Papa's going to be very angry when he finds me gone. Are you sure you will be all right?”

“I'll be fine. James thinks me too dimwitted to have aided you. I won't be blamed.”

There was a bitterness in Eunice's voice that Olivia knew stemmed from being in a marriage devoid of love.

Eunice touched her daughter's smooth cheek. “Godspeed, my dear Olivia and may He keep you safe.”

“You as well. I will write as soon and as often as I'm able.” Olivia felt confident any correspondence between them would go undiscovered because her father never retrieved the mail himself. It would never cross his mind to go out to the box; that was Eunice's job, just like it was her job to present the mail to him every evening during his dinner.

It was time to leave. The hack Olivia had engaged for her escape would pick her up a few blocks away.

She and her mother shared one last good-bye embrace, then Olivia stepped out into the warm summer night. As befitting one of Chicago's best seamstresses, she was dressed in a fashionable dove gray traveling costume of her own design. To defeat pickpockets she'd sewn her life savings into the waistband and hems of her skirts. When she reached her destination the funds would help start her new life.

Deep down inside she was terrified; she'd never done anything so bold before, but she had no choice but to keep going.

Two days later Olivia was seated on a train crossing the plains. She had no idea what her new life would hold but was convinced it would be better than the life she'd left behind in Chicago. That life would have cast her as the wife of one Horatio Butler, a man handpicked by her father but one she couldn't abide, let alone agree to love, honor, and obey until death do her part. Olivia owned a very successful modiste shop and hadn't spent the last ten year building her clientele and reputation just to turn the profits and property over to a man who thought women in the workplace should be guided by their husband's advice. This from a man who didn't know a seam from a hat pin.

Olivia could feel herself begin to boil up all over again just thinking about the greedy Mr. Butler and his plans to sell her building and invest the money in lord knew what, because he wouldn't tell her. In response to her pointed questions on the matter, he'd told her not to worry her pretty little head; he would take care of everything.

So, Olivia went to her banker and had a discussion. Unbeknownst to her father or Mr. Butler, she sold her business and the building housing it to the husband of one of her wealthier clients. The money Olivia received in exchange for the deed added up to a tidy sum; one tidy enough for her to be able to start life elsewhere. She'd decided on Kansas where many all Black settlements were established during the Great Exodus of 1879. The newspapers called the movement Kansas Fever. Thousands upon thousands of southern Blacks left the terror and bloodshed visited upon their lives by the Redemptionist Democrats and headed west to places like Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. Now, ten years later, many of the towns hadn't survived, but Henry Adams Kansas was supposedly thriving, and all thriving towns needed dressmakers.

So here she sat, looking out of the window at the passing plains. She was seated in the car's back row hoping to be out of sight and out of mind. She'd seen the frowns on the faces of some of the passengers when she initially entered the car back at the Chicago station. Her presence was resented. With Jim Crow spreading across the country like a plague, it was becoming harder and harder for members of the race to escape its ugly edicts. Olivia hadn't boarded the train to stir the air; she was just trying to get to Kansas.


Olivia looked up to see the conductor standing politely by her seat. “Yes?”

Out of the corner of her eye she could see a few scowling passengers looking on. She ignored them.

“I've been asked to remove you from the car.”

Olivia steeled herself to keep her face emotionless.

“But I'm not going to.”