Karolyn Smardz Frost, Executive Director, Ontario Historical Society, Ontario, Canada, author; commentators E. Ethelbert Miller, Director, African American Resource Center, Howard University; Harvey Amani Whitfield, Assistant Professor of History, University of Vermont. Co-sponsored with the Wilson Center's Canada Institute and the African American Studies Department, University of Maryland, and the African American Resource Center, Howard University.
In 1985, a team of archaeologists working in Toronto, Canada, stumbled upon the remnants of a barn, a house and a cellar. The property was found to have belonged to Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, who were the owners of Toronto's first "colored" cab company. Head archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost promptly began what became a twenty year research project to reconstitute the social, cultural, and economic context of the couple's lives. As detailed in I've Got a Home in Glory Land, the culmination of her research, she discovered that the Blackburns were former slaves who had escaped from the United States on the legendary Underground Railroad. Their tale, which Smardz Frost described at a discussion organized by the Division of United States Studies, sparked a series of events that secured Canada as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad and illuminates one aspect of the history of slavery in the United States.
As with any historian trying to uncover the history of African Americans before the Civil War, Smardz Frost had to overcome the dearth of written records about or by slaves. The Blackburns were not literate and had no children to pass on their tale, which further complicated Smardz Frost's research. She was able to discover nonetheless that Thornton Blackburn's story began in Maysville, Kentucky in 1812, where he grew up listening to veterans of the War of 1812 speaking wonderingly about fighting "free" black men in Canada. At the age of 14, Thornton was sold to Dr. Gideon Brown of Breckinridge County, Kentucky. After Dr. Brown's death, Thornton was hired out by Dr. Brown's family to work as a porter in a dry goods store in Louisville. There, at age 19, he met and fell in love with Lucie, an enslaved woman who later became his wife. Soon, however, Lucie's owner decided to sell her "down the river" – a phrase coined in Kentucky to describe the fate faced by slaves in border states who were sold down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the highly profitable cotton plantations further south. It was Lucie's impending sale "down the river" that galvanized the Blackburns to seek freedom.
On the morning of July 11, 1831, Thornton and Lucie took forged "free" papers in hand and boarded a ferry that crossed the Ohio River to Cincinnati, where they disembarked at what is now the site of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. They resettled in Detroit, Michigan, where they were later found by slave agents and arrested, prior to being returned to their owners. Then, however, the story took a dramatic turn. Faced with the prospect of the Blackburns being sent back into slavery, members of Detroit's African-American community, along with a white local newspaper publisher and the white city's attorney, duped the authorities and orchestrated the so-called "Blackburn riots" of 1833, managing to free the Blackburns from jail and helping them abscond to Canada.
The Blackburns became the subject of Canada's first extradition case. Colonel John Colborne, then governor of Upper Canada, was confronted with the difficult decision of turning the fugitives over to the Michigan authorities and eventually back into slavery – an institution which he opposed – or risking a major diplomatic incident with the United States. He and his attorney general devised a plan which, Smardz Frost said, "set the precedent for all fugitive slave cases." Under it, Canada would not extradite a fugitive to face a punishment worse than one Canadian law would tender for the crimes of which he or she was accused. Slavery fell into that category, and so the Blackburns would not be returned to the United States. That extradition policy remains part of Canadian law to this day.
The Blackburns made Toronto their home but never forgot their roots. They gave money to the anti-slavery society in Toronto and frequently helped fugitive slaves resettle in Canada. Blackburn even took a daring trip back to Kentucky so that he could help his brother and his mother, whom he had not seen in twelve years, escape to Canada. In writing about the Blackburns, "I went looking for ordinary people," Smardz Frost said, "but I found extraordinary people."
Today, people thinking about the Underground Railroad are likely to envision it as a scenario in which kindly white Quakers escorted passive slaves into freedom, Prof. E. Ethelbert Miller commented. In fact, as Smardz Frost's book demonstrates, the story of the Underground Railroad is the history of black Americans as the primary agents in their quest for freedom. Prof. Harvey Amani Whitfield noted that the fact that African Americans who fled to Canada became Canadian Americans but maintained a commitment to abolition and to aiding runaway slaves suggests that they developed what might be described as a pan-African outlook. The remarkable tale of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, he added, is not just an African-American story or an African-Canadian story, but is truly a North American story.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129