Thornton Blackburn

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Thornton Blackburn (1812–1890) and his wife Lucie (also Ruth or Ruthy) were escaped slaves from Louisville, Kentucky. They had been settled in Detroit, Michigan, for two years when, in 1833, Kentucky slave hunters located, re-captured, and arrested the couple. The Blackburns were jailed but allowed visitors, which provided the opportunity for Lucie to exchange her clothes—and her incarceration—with a Mrs. George French. Lucie was then spirited across the Detroit River to safety in Amherstburg, in Essex County, Upper Canada (U.C.).

Thornton's escape was more difficult as he was heavily guarded, bound and shackled. The day before Thornton was to be returned to Kentucky, Detroit's African American community rose up in protest. A crowd of some 400 men stormed the jail to free him. During the commotion that ensued, two individuals called Sleepy Polly and Daddy Walker helped Thornton escape and eventually find safety in Essex County, U.C. 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 ever Riot Commission formed in the U.S.

[1] Thornton, meanwhile, was in the throes of a dramatic journey. 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 U.C., Major General Sir John Colborne, who refused extradition to the United States, noting that a person could not steal himself.

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, 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, himself, would operate. It became the nucleus of a taxicab company, the city's first, a successful venture that had others soon following his example.

Some time in the late 1830s, Thornton made a daring return to Kentucky to bring his mother, Sibby (born ca. 1776 in Virginia), back with him to join another son of hers, Alfred, Thornton's brother, who may have arrived in Toronto as early as 1826. The Blackburns continued to be active in antislavery and community activities, helping to build the nearby Little Trinity Church, now the oldest surviving one 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 February 26, 1890, leaving an estate of $18,000 and six properties, and is buried at Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery. Lucie died five years later, on Feb. 6, 1895.

In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Blackburns "Persons of National Historic Significance" not only for their personal struggle for freedom, but because theirs was emblematic of so many similar, but typically undocumented, cases.[2] Also important, the Blackburns' situation prompted the articulation of a legal defense against slavery. They were also designated for their important 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martelle, Scott (2012). Detroit: A Biography. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-56976-526-5. 
  2. ^ Thornton and Lucie Blackburn National Historic Person(s) Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance, Parks Canada, 2005[dead link]

External links[edit]

Additional reading[edit]

  • A. S. Quinn "The Detroit Riot of 1863; racial violence and internal division in Northern society during the Civil War"
  • Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper and Karolyn Smardz Frost "The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!"
  • "A Glimpse of Toronto's History", Urban Affairs Library, Metro Hall Lobby, 55 John Street, Toronto