Thornton Blackburn

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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 sold and eventually ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he met his wife, Lucie (also Ruth or Ruthy). [1]


Blackburn and Lucie escaped from Louisville to Michigan in 1831. [2] They had been living there for two years when, in 1833, Kentucky slave hunters located, re-captured, and arrested the couple. [1] 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. [3] 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. [1] 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, [3] resulting in the first Riot Commission to be formed in the United States. [4]

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. [1]

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 [5] and that lifetime slavery was too severe a punishment for any crime less than murder. [1]


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. [3] 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. [2] It became the nucleus of a successful taxicab company. [6]

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, [2] 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.

Thornton died on February 26, 1890, leaving an estate of $18,000 and six properties, and is buried at Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery. [5] Lucie died five years later, on February 6, 1895. [2]


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. [7] 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, [8] 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. [2]

In 2015, a mural near their former home, "Site Specific," was installed. It depicts the history of the neighbourhood, and includes the Thorntons' cab. [8]

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. [2]

See also

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  1. 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
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "George Brown College honours black community pioneers". Toronto Star, November 8, 2016. page GT3. Alicia Siekierska.
  3. 1 2 3 "BLACK IN TORONTO: The Blackburns escaped the U.S. for new life in Canada". Inside Toronto, Rosemary Sadlier, November 11, 2016
  4. Martelle, Scott (2012). Detroit: A Biography. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press. p. 38. ISBN   978-1-56976-526-5.
  5. 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
  6. "From Thornton Blackburn to Uber: a brief and varied history of Toronto taxis". CBC News Joshua Errett, April 9, 2016
  7. Thornton and Lucie Blackburn National Historic Person(s) [ permanent dead link ] Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance, Parks Canada, 2005[ dead link ]
  8. 1 2 "This Public Art in Corktown Gives a Glimpse of Toronto Through the Ages". Torontoist, November 3, 2016. Beatrice Paez

Further reading