Thornton Blackburn

Last updated
Thornton Blackburn

Thornton Blackburn (1812–1890) was a self-emancipated formerly enslaved man whose case established the principle that Canada would not return slaves to their masters in the United States and thus established Canada as a safe terminus for the Underground Railroad.


Early life

Blackburn was born in Mason County, Kentucky, and grew up in Washington, Kentucky, now part of Maysville, Kentucky. He was first sold at age three. At 14, he was taken to Hardinsburg, Kentucky. [1] Three years later, Thornton was sent to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was hired out to work as a porter for a dry goods company. [1] In Louisville, at the age of 19, he met his future wife Lucie, 28 years old at the time, who was enslaved as a nursemaid. [2]


Thornton and Lucie escaped from Louisville to Michigan in 1831. [3] They had been living there for two years when, in 1833, Kentucky slave hunters located, re-captured, and arrested the couple. [2] The Blackburns were jailed but were allowed visitors, which provided the opportunity for Lucie to exchange her clothes and her incarceration with Mrs. George French. [4] Lucie was then smuggled across the Detroit River to safety in Amherstburg, in Essex County, Upper Canada.

Thornton's escape was more difficult because he was heavily guarded, bound and shackled. The day before Thornton was to be returned to Kentucky, Detroit's black community rose up in protest in the Blackburn Riots. A crowd of about 400 men stormed the jail to free him. During the commotion, two individuals called Sleepy Polly and Daddy Walker helped Thornton escape and eventually find safety in Essex County, Upper Canada. [2] The commotion turned into a two-day riot during which the local sheriff was shot and fatally wounded. It was the first race riot in Detroit, [4] resulting in the first Riot Commission to be formed in the United States. [5]

While the unrest in Detroit continued, Thornton's supporters procured a horse-cart and conveyed Thornton away from Detroit to the northeast. A posse had formed to pursue Thornton and caught up with the cart about one mile outside of Detroit. Thornton's pursuers then discovered that Thornton had disembarked from the cart shortly after it had arrived in the wilderness outside of Detroit. With help from his rescuers, Thornton was able to circle west and south of Detroit. He boarded a boat near the mouth of River Rouge and crossed the Detroit River into Essex County to join his wife. [2]

Once in Essex County, Thornton was jailed briefly while a formal request for his return was issued by the Michigan territorial governor. A reply came from the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Major General Sir John Colborne, who refused extradition to the United States, noting that a person could not steal himself [6] and that lifetime slavery was too severe a punishment for any crime less than murder. [2]


In 1834, Thornton reunited with his wife Lucie in the newly incorporated City of Toronto, where he worked as a waiter at Osgoode Hall. [4] Together, they lived on Eastern Avenue for the next half century. [7]

Thornton created Toronto's first taxi service in 1837, named "The City". [7] Though illiterate, he saw the need for a taxi service and so obtained blueprints for a cab from Montreal and commissioned its construction. He started this service by building a red and yellow box cab named "The City," drawn by a single horse and able to carry four passengers, with a driver in a box at the front, which he would operate. [3] It became the nucleus of a successful taxicab company. [8]

Some time in the late 1830s, Thornton made a daring return to Kentucky to bring his mother, Mubby (born c.1776 in Virginia), back with him to join another son, Alfred, Thornton's brother, who may have arrived in Toronto as early as 1826. The Blackburns continued to be active in anti-slavery and community activities, helping to build the nearby Little Trinity Church, [3] now the oldest-surviving church in Toronto. Thornton participated in the North American Convention of Colored Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall in September 1851, was an associate of anti-slavery leader George Brown, and helped former slaves settle at Toronto and Buxton.

The Blackburns took in African American freedom seekers, including Ann Maria Jackson and her seven children in 1858. The youngest child, Albert, became the first black postman of Toronto. When immigrants came to Toronto, many settled in St. John's Ward. The Blackburns built six homes there that they rented out at nominal rates for former enslaved people. [9]

Thornton died on February 26, 1890, leaving an estate of $18,000 and six properties, and is buried at Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery. [6] Lucie died five years later, on February 6, 1895. [3]


In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Blackburns "Persons of National Historic Significance" for their personal struggle for freedom, which was emblematic of so many similar but typically undocumented cases. [10] Also importantly, the Blackburns' situation prompted the articulation of a legal defense against slavery. They were also designated for their contribution to the growth of Toronto, generosity to the less fortunate, and lifelong resistance to slavery. In 2002, plaques in their honour were erected at the site of their excavated house in Toronto, Ontario, and in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1985, an archaeological dig uncovered the foundations of the Thorntons' home, [11] leading to a book about their lives, I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, written by historian Karolyn Smardz Frost. [3]

In 2015, a mural near their former home, "Site Specific," was installed. It depicts the history of the neighbourhood, and includes the Thorntons' cab. [11]

In 2016, a conference centre at George Brown College in Toronto was named for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, and a mural depicting their story has been painted in the building's downstairs lobby. [3]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Underground Railroad</span> Network for fugitive slaves in 19th-century U.S.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and from there to Canada. The network, primarily the work of free African Americans, was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The slaves who risked capture and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the passengers and conductors of the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. However, the network generally known as the Underground Railroad began in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. One estimate suggests that, by 1850, approximately 100,000 slaves had escaped to freedom via the network.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Underground Railroad Freedom Center</span> Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a museum in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, based on the history of the Underground Railroad. Opened in 2004, the center also pays tribute to all efforts to "abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Inglenook Community High School</span> High school in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Inglenook Community High School is a Toronto public high school in Toronto, Ontario, Canada which offers grade 10, 11, and 12 level courses. It is housed in an historical building designed by William George Storm in the Corktown neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. The school has, on average, one hundred students and six teachers. It is located in the oldest continually-operated school building of the Toronto District School Board.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry Bibb</span> American ex slave, writer, and abolitionist

Henry Walton Bibb, was an American author and abolitionist who was born into slavery. Bibb told his life story in his Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, which included many failed escape attempts followed finally by success when he escaped to Detroit. After leaving Detroit to move to Canada with his family, due to issues with the legality of his assistance in the Underground Railroad, he founded the abolitionist newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive. He lived in Canada until his death.

Washington is a neighborhood of the city of Maysville located near the Ohio River in Mason County in the U.S. state of Kentucky. It is one of the earliest settlements in Kentucky and also one of the earliest American settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. It played a significant role in the lead-up to the Civil War, producing two civil war generals and an escaped slave whose legal case established Canada as a safe haven for escaping slaves. It also provided the site where Harriet Beecher Stowe witnessed a slave auction. It has since been annexed by Maysville, and is sometimes now referred to as Old Washington. The community is in Area 606 served by the 759 exchange.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Underground Railroad in Indiana</span>

The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger, unofficial, and loosely-connected network of groups and individuals who aided and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the southern United States. The network in Indiana gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, reached its peak during the 1850s, and continued until slavery was abolished throughout the United States at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is not known how many fugitive slaves escaped through Indiana on their journey to Michigan and Canada. An unknown number of Indiana's abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, and people of color, as well as Quakers and other religious groups illegally operated stations along the network. Some of the network's operatives have been identified, including Levi Coffin, the best-known of Indiana's Underground Railroad leaders. In addition to shelter, network agents provided food, guidance, and, in some cases, transportation to aid the runaways.

William Parker was an American former slave who escaped from Maryland to Pennsylvania, where he became an abolitionist and anti-slavery activist in Christiana. He was a farmer and led a black self-defense organization. He was notable as a principal figure in the Christiana incident, 1851, also known as the Christiana Resistance. Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slaveowner who owned four slaves who had fled over the state border to Parker's farm, was killed and other white men in the party to capture the fugitives were wounded. The events brought national attention to the challenges of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Karolyn Smardz Frost is a Canadian historian who won the Governor General's Award for English-language non-fiction in 2007 for I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.

The History of slavery in Michigan includes the pro-slavery and anti-slavery efforts of the state's residents prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.

Mary Elizabeth Bibb was an American-born educator and abolitionist leader. She is considered by some to be the first female black journalist in Canada. She was a teacher and abolitionist in the United States, before moving with her husband Henry Bibb to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which made it very easy for slavecatchers to capture fugitive and free Blacks. She established schools for Black Canadians, published the Voice of the Fugitive newspaper, and helped African Americans get settled in Canada.

The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route is a 2,000-mile bicycle touring route from Mobile, Alabama, to Owen Sound, Ontario. It was developed by Adventure Cycling Association with the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh. The route was built to loosely follow the Underground Railroad, the network of paths that African American slaves used to escape to the Northern United States and Canada.

George DeBaptiste was a prominent African-American conductor on the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana and Detroit, Michigan. Born free in Virginia, he moved as a young man to the free state of Indiana. In 1840, he served as valet and then White House steward for US President William Henry Harrison, who was from that state. In the 1830s and 1840s DeBaptiste was an active conductor in Madison, Indiana. Located along the Ohio River across from Kentucky, a slave state, this town was a destination for refugee slaves seeking escape from slavery.

The Blackburn riots occurred during the summer of 1833 in Detroit, Michigan. They were the first race riots in the history of the city. The riots were spurred by the imprisonment of Thornton and Rutha Blackburn, an African-American couple that had escaped slavery in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1831. They were caught by slave catchers, thrown in jail, and sentenced to be returned to their owners in Kentucky. This ruling angered the African-American population of Detroit. Rutha Blackburn was smuggled out by two African-American women, and the following day, a mob formed outside the jail, demanding the release of Thornton. Refusal was met with violence as the mob stormed the jail, beating the authorities and taking Thornton. Thornton was transported to Canada, where he was reunited with Rutha.

First Baptist Church is a Baptist in Toronto, Ontario, affiliated with Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. It is both the first Baptist congregation in Toronto and the oldest black institution in the city. Formed by fugitive enslaved persons, the church played a large role in the abolitionist movement, including hosting lectures against slavery and offering aid to fugitives.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Black Canadians in Ontario</span>

Black Canadians migrated north in the 18th and 19th centuries from the United States, many of them through the Underground Railroad, into Southwestern Ontario, Toronto, and Owen Sound. Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812 and Rebellions of 1837–1838 for the British. Some returned to the United States during the American Civil War or during the Reconstruction era.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ann Maria Jackson</span>

Ann Maria Jackson was an enslaved woman with nine children who ran away from her enslaver in November 1858 after two of her eldest children had been sold. Her husband became mentally ill and died in a poor house. After finding out that four more of her children were about to be sold, she gathered the seven children who were with her and traveled along the Underground Railroad for Canada. She went through the way of Wilmington, then to Philadelphia, later to St.Catherines, and then to Toronto. This was rare as she had brought her seven children with her through the Underground Railroad. It was difficult for women to run away secretly. The Jacksons established new lives for themselves in Toronto. Her two eldest children later reunited with the family, and the youngest, Albert Jackson, became the first African American to work as a letter carrier in Toronto.

Lucie "Ruthie" Blackburn (1803-1895) was a self-emancipated West-Indian, American former slave who escaped to Canada with her husband Thornton Blackburn and helped him establish the first taxi company in Toronto.

Kentucky raid in Cass County (1847) was conducted by slaveholders and slave catchers who raided Underground Railroad stations in Cass County, Michigan to capture black people and return them to slavery. After unsuccessful attempts, and a lost court case, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted. Michigan's Personal Liberty Act of 1855 was passed in the state legislature to prevent the capture of formerly enslaved people that would return them to slavery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adam Crosswhite</span> Slavery Victim

Adam Crosswhite (1799–1878) was a formerly enslaved man who fled slavery along the Underground Railroad and settled in Marshall, Michigan. In 1847, slavers from Kentucky came to Michigan to kidnap African Americans and return them to slavery in Kentucky. Citizens of the town surrounded the Crosswhite's house and prevented them from being abducted. The Crosswhites fled to Canada, and their former enslaver, Francis Giltner, filed a suit, Giltner vs. Gorham et al., against residents of Marshall. Giltner won the case and was compensated for the loss of the Crosswhite family. After the Civil War, Crosswhite returned to Marshall, where he lived the rest of his life.


  1. 1 2 "Thornton and Lucie Blackburn | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2023-02-10.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Yale scholar devotes her career to the tale of two escaped slaves". New Haven Register, By Jim Shelton 06/29/2013
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "George Brown College honours black community pioneers". Toronto Star, November 8, 2016. page GT3. Alicia Siekierska.
  4. 1 2 3 "BLACK IN TORONTO: The Blackburns escaped the U.S. for new life in Canada". Inside Toronto, Rosemary Sadlier, November 11, 2016
  5. Martelle, Scott (2012). Detroit: A Biography. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press. p. 38. ISBN   978-1-56976-526-5.
  6. 1 2 "Roots of Toronto's black community run deeper than you might think: James".Toronto Star, Royson James, Toronto Politics Columnist, November 12, 2016
  7. 1 2 Blackburn, Lucie and Blackburn, Thornton. (2008). In The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations (Vol. 1, pp. 58–58).
  8. "From Thornton Blackburn to Uber: a brief and varied history of Toronto taxis". CBC News Joshua Errett, April 9, 2016
  9. "Thornton and Lucie Blackburn". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2021-06-19.
  10. Thornton and Lucie Blackburn National Historic Person(s) [ permanent dead link ] Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance, Parks Canada, 2005[ dead link ]
  11. 1 2 "This Public Art in Corktown Gives a Glimpse of Toronto Through the Ages". Torontoist, November 3, 2016. Beatrice Paez

Further reading