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.
Blackburn was born in Mason County, Kentucky, and grew up in Washington, Kentucky, now part of Maysville, Kentucky. He was sold and eventually ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he met his wife, Lucie (also Ruth or Ruthy).
Blackburn and Lucie escaped from Louisville to Michigan in 1831.They had been living there for two years when, in 1833, Kentucky slave hunters located, re-captured, and arrested the couple. The Blackburns were jailed but were allowed visitors, which provided the opportunity for Lucie to exchange her clothes and her incarceration with a Mrs. George French. 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.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, resulting in the first Riot Commission to be formed in the United States.
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.
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 himselfand that lifetime slavery was too severe a punishment for any crime less than murder.
Thornton eventually reunited with his wife, Lucie, in the newly incorporated City of Toronto, arriving in 1834, where he worked as a waiter at Osgoode Hall.Though illiterate, he saw the need for a taxi service and so obtained blueprints for a cab from Montreal and commissioned its construction. By 1837, he had it: 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. It became the nucleus of a successful taxicab company.
Some time in the late 1830s, Thornton made a daring return to Kentucky to bring his mother, Sibby (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, 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.
Thornton died on February 26, 1890, leaving an estate of $18,000 and six properties, and is buried at Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery. 6, 1895.Lucie died five years later, on February
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.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,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.
In 2015, a mural near their former home, "Site Specific," was installed. It depicts the history of the neighbourhood, and includes the Thorntons' cab.
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.
The Detroit River flows west and south for 24 nautical miles from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie as a strait in the Great Lakes system. The river divides the metropolitan areas of Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario—an area collectively referred to as Detroit–Windsor—and forms part of the border between Canada and the United States. The Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, and the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel connect the cities.
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 Canada. The network was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as 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 now 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, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.
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."
Calvin Fairbank was an American abolitionist and Methodist minister from New York state who was twice convicted in Kentucky of aiding the escape of slaves, and served a total of 19 years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort. Fairbank is believed to have aided the escape of 47 slaves.
Inglenook Community High School is a Toronto public high school which offers grade 10, 11, and 12 level courses. It is housed in an historical building designed by William George Storm in Corktown, in downtown Toronto, Ontario. 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.
The John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum is a 20-acre (81,000 m2) historical site located in Puce, now Lakeshore, Ontario, about 40 km east of Windsor. Today, many of the original buildings remain, and in 1985, the site was opened as an Underground Railroad museum. The site forms part of the African-Canadian Heritage Tour in Southern Ontario.
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.
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.
John Ladue was mayor of Detroit, Michigan in 1850.
Riots in Detroit, Michigan, have occurred since the city was founded in 1701. This area was settled by various ethnicities following thousands of years of indigenous history. During the colonial period, it was nominally ruled by France and Great Britain before the border was set in the early 19th century and it became part of the United States. The first riot, social unrest related to enabling fugitive slaves to escape to Canada, was recorded in 1833. Other riots were related to business protests, unions, and other issues.
North Buxton is a dispersed rural community located in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. It was established in 1849 as a community for and by former African-American slaves who escaped to Canada to gain freedom. Rev. William King, a Scots-Irish/American Presbyterian minister and abolitionist, had organized the Elgin Association to buy 9,000 acres of land for resettlement of the refugees, to give them a start in Canada. Within a few years, numerous families were living here, having cleared land, built houses, and developed crops. They established schools and churches, and were thriving before the American Civil War.
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 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 was founded in Toronto, Ontario in 1826. 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.
Isaac J. Rice was a minister and missionary for fugitive slaves from the United States. He operated a mission for arriving black people and a large school for black children at Fort Malden at Amherstburg, Ontario. It was a major landing point for African Americans and the main station of the American Missionary Association.
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.
Ann Maria Jackson was an enslaved woman with nine children ran away from her enslaver in November 1858, after two of her eldest children had been sold away. Her husband became mentally ill and he died in a poor house. Another four of her children were threatened to be sold. She gathered the seven children who were with her and traveled along the Underground Railroad for Canada. The Jacksons established lives for themselves in Toronto. Her two eldest children reunited with the family. Her youngest, Albert Jackson, became the first African American to work as a letter carrier in Toronto. Later, the two eldest children connected with the family in Toronto.