In 1985, at an archaeological dig in downtown Toronto a remarkable find was made. Beneath the old Sackville Street School playground were traces of a house, a shed, and a mysterious cellar. Municipal records revealed that the original landowner had been “Thornton Blackburn, cabman, coloured.” He and his wife were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had settled in Toronto in 1834 and had gone on to become wealthy and successful businesspeople. The Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Site became the first archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site in Canada.
Between June and October 1985, the site received more publicity than any dig in Canadian history. Journalists from all over the world interviewed staff, produced television and radio programs, and published articles that appeared in newspapers from Kuwait to Japan. Respected scholars traveled to Toronto to discuss the findings. More than three thousand schoolchildren and members of the public participated in the summerlong dig. Thousands of fascinated visitors came to watch, intrigued by the painstakingly slow process of piecing together the story of two human lives, written there in the soil in fragments of pottery and bits of broken glass.
As the excavations progressed, historical research revealed tantalizing clues about the Blackburns’ past. The trail led to a late-nineteenth-century newspaper article entitled “The First Cab in the City,” written by John Ross Robertson, editor of the Toronto Telegram. It credited this pair of runaway American slaves with initiating Toronto’s first taxi business. An abolitionist newspaper dating to 1851 showed Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn as leaders in the campaign to end slavery in the United States and to help its refugees make new homes once they reached freedom. Thornton’s tall granite tombstone in the Toronto Necropolis revealed that he was born in Maysville, Kentucky, in about 1812. But the most intriguing information came from Michigan. The “Blackburn Riots of 1831” had erupted when slave catchers tried to return a man named Thornton Blackburn and his wife to their Kentucky masters. These were the first racial riots in the city of Detroit. When the couple sought refuge in Upper Canada, a sharp diplomatic altercation between Michigan’s Territorial Governor and the British colonial government of Upper Canada over their extradition had a very significant result: the formulation of British North America’s first, articulated legal rationale for harbouring fugitive slaves. In fact, it was the Blackburn case that formally established Canada as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad.
Yet until archaeologists discovered the site of their Toronto home, the Blackburns had been forgotten. They had no children. They never learned to read or write, and to this day not a single photo of the couple has come to light. Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were all but lost to history.
My book, “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” is the result of almost twenty years of historical detective work. Government records in Canada and Michigan provided an all-important key to researching their lives in slavery—the names of Lucie and Thornton Blackburns’ owners. All trails led back to Kentucky. As their story took shape, the Blackburn family’s experiences in slavery and freedom opened a door into the world they knew and in which they played so vital a part. Set against the backdrop of antebellum America’s struggle with race and slavery, the Blackburns’ biography illuminates the historical trends that shaped the tangled histories of people black and white, on this continent.
Thornton’s mother, Sibby, was born in Virginia in about 1776. Thornton was sold as a slave at age three and grew to be a young man of character and determination. He met and married another slave while they were both in captivity. On the day before Independence Day, 1831, as Lucie, was about to be “sold down the river” to the slave markets of New Orleans, the young couple planned a daring—and successful—daylight escape from Louisville. But they were discovered by slave catchers in Michigan and slated to return to Kentucky in chains, until the black community rallied to their cause. The Blackburn Riot of 1833 was the first racial uprising in Detroit history. The couple was spirited across the river to Canada, but their safety proved illusory. In June 1833, Michigan’s governor demanded their extradition. The Blackburn case was the first serious legal dispute between Canada and the United States regarding the Underground Railroad. The impassioned defence of the Blackburn couple by Canada’s lieutenant governor set precedents for all future fugitive-slave cases. The couple settled in Toronto and founded the city’s first taxi business. But they never forgot the millions who still suffered in slavery. Working with prominent abolitionists, Thornton and Lucie made their home a haven for runaways, eventually travelling back to the state they had run from to rescue Thornton’s mother. The Blackburns died in the 1890s, and their fascinating tale was lost to history. Lost, that is, until a chance archaeological discovery in a downtown Toronto school yard brought the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn again to light.
The collective experience of the Blackburns therefore encompassed some 120 years of history, and on both sides of the long border the United States shares with Canada. From the impassioned liberation rhetoric inspired by the American Revolution through the catastrophe of Jim Crow–era segregation, the events and the shifting meanings of the words “race” and “freedom” over these twelve decades shaped modern North American society. The Blackburn saga is framed within the history of Africans in America and their ongoing resistance to the inferior and exploited status colonialism thrust upon them. This rejection of their enslavement by the turn of the nineteenth century had culminated in the establishment of well-worn paths leading out of the slave states. These clandestine routes and the courageous individuals who assisted those who traveled came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad occupies a very special place in the North American saga. Tales of hidden tunnels and false-bottomed wagons, perilous escapes by night and brazen daylight rescues all paint an enthralling picture. Yet the stories we learn are filtered through much embroidered late-nineteenth-century accounts by white authors. In the place of the daring freedom-seekers who made the perilous journey north, the heroes have become whites who helped them on their way. Yet surviving slave narratives show that most people escaped alone and unaided. Years after Kentucky-born author, poet, and playwright William Wells Brown fled slavery in 1834, he wrote, “When I escaped there was no Underground Railroad. The North Star was, in many instances, the only friend that the weary and footsore fugitive found on his pilgrimage to his new home among strangers.” Mattie J. Jackson told the same story: “My parents had never learned the rescuing scheme of the underground railroad which had borne so many thousands to the standard of freedom and victories. They knew no other resource than to depend upon their own chance in running away and secreting themselves.” Lost in the mythology, too, are the free blacks of the Northern states who risked far more than their white counterparts when they hid a desperate fugitive in a barn, or passed a meal over the fence to a starving family. The book was, in part, an attempt to set the Underground Railroad’s record straight. The Blackburns traveled the routes of the Underground Railroad as it was, rather than as myth and legend would have it be.
No one will ever know how many African Americans fled slavery in the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Black people in the United States had been escaping those who claimed their service almost since the first Dutch slave ship landed her human cargo at Jamestown in 1619. Some runaways formed maroon communities beyond the outposts of white settlement. Others went to Spanish Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and a tiny proportion reached Britain, Europe, and Africa. Estimates of those who came to Canada range between 20,000 and 100,000. Reliable contemporary observers place the number at somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 over the entire antebellum period.
African Americans waged a daily, unrelenting battle against their enslaved condition. Well aware that their value to their owners lay in their unpaid labour, they engaged in acts of resistance calculated to undermine the slaveholder’s profit margin: breaking tools, injuring livestock, or “malingering,” simply pretending to be ill. Charismatic leaders arose to foment revolts always limited in scale and quickly contained, but these struck terror into the hearts of whites across the South. Such collective resistance was relatively rare, for the entire system of the slaveocracy militated against bondspeople being able to organize or arm themselves. Instead, when the beatings, hunger, and the destruction of family occasioned by sale and sexual interference became too much to bear, African Americans made the single most overtly antislavery statement possible, short of suicide or murder: they ran away. In so doing, they deprived their owners not only of their productivity and of their own market value but also that of their children and all ensuing generations. Even more potently, the thousands of slaves who “stole themselves” exploded the comforting racist myth that buttressed American slavery: that blacks were unfit for freedom, too lazy and unintelligent to care for themselves without white supervision, and that they preferred the kindly oversight of benevolent masters—that they were, indeed, “happy in their chains.”
In a Christian nation founded upon republican principles, the commodification of black labour required moral justification. White America found ways of separating itself from blacks as fellow human beings. No lesser an authority than Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” A beneficiary himself of the plantation system, he deemed slavery a “necessary evil.” In the years immediately following the American Revolution, biblical and scientific justifications were sought to “prove” blacks irredeemably less capable than whites, uneducable, inherently indolent, and immoral, the eternal “other.” Even in Northern states where slavery gave way to wage labour soon after the Revolution, black skin came to be considered emblematic of bondage. People of color were required to carry with them papers attesting to their free status, lest they be taken up as fugitive slaves under harsh federal laws that enabled slaveholders to seek out their absconding property anywhere in the United States. Slavery in America was inextricably intertwined with the concept of race.
By the time a young enslaved Kentuckian named Thornton Blackburn came of age in 1830, self-serving pro-slavery ideology had transformed Jefferson’s “necessary evil” into a system slaveholders professedly believed to be a “positive good.” Apologists maintained that white “wage slaves” in Britain and the northern United States were worse off than blacks living in Southern slavery. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who with New England’s Daniel Webster and Kentucky’s own Henry Clay formed the “Great Triumvirate” of antebellum American politics, summed this up in a speech he made before the U.S. Senate on February 6, 1837: “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” Yet nowhere was such nonsense better contradicted than in the lengths enslaved African Americans were willing to go to free themselves. The exodus of black men, women, and children from the slave states was a vast, collective rejection of their circumstances and of the racially biased rationalizations that supported slavery.
Whippings, mutilation, rape, and varied forms of physical and mental torture were ways in which the slaveholding class maintained its hegemony over its unwilling workers, and thousands of unacknowledged slaves provided much of the work in pioneer wagon trains heading to the U.S. east coast. But slave narratives show that a majority of runaways fled for a more specific reason: they were about to be parted from those they loved. Colonial-era planters had maintained the fiction that they cared for their “black families” as they did their white. When selling off slaves, they paid lip service to keeping couples or at least mothers and children together. The death knell to such paternalism sounded when the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793 gave birth to the cotton-growing boom of the early nineteenth century. As cotton-growing expanded in the Deep South, the older farming districts of the more northerly slave states found it very profitable to ship their “surplus” slaves south for sale. These so-called Border States became a slave-producing resource for the larger, more prosperous plantation economy of the Lower South. Wives and mothers, fathers, and even tiny babies were taken from their loved ones and sold far away.
At the same time, the rift between North and South was widening into an irreparable chasm. Increasing Northern and foreign criticism of the American slave system and resistance to the expansion of slavery into the newly added frontier districts resulted in a hardening of pro-slavery positions. A series of slave revolts terrified slaveholding whites and intensified efforts to control supposedly contented local black populations. In addition to the escalating threat of being sold away from their families, enslaved African Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century suffered from enhanced surveillance, ever more limited mobility, and a host of other indignities and restrictions. Slave flight to the Northern states and to destinations outside the borders of the United States turned from a trickle to a flood as conditions deteriorated in the South. Proslavery advocates blamed the progressively more vocal abolitionist movement for slave discontent and minimized the numbers of runaways officially reported, but the fact that mounting numbers of black Americans were taking terrible personal risks to flee bondage was difficult to counter.
It was to preserve their own marriage that Thornton Blackburn and his bride would make their own break for freedom in the summer of 1831; the year was significant, for 1831 was the watershed for abolitionism in the northern United States. Originally, the antislavery movement, a factor in both the South and the North in the Revolutionary era, had proposed that slaveholders support the gradual emancipation of African American slaves. Some hoped slavery as an institution would die a natural death. Those who believed black people should “return” to the African continent, incidentally ridding the United States of quantities of free blacks, sponsored an ambitious and ultimately ruinously expensive colonization scheme that resulted in the founding of Liberia. But by the 1830s, with increasing pressure to extend cotton-growing and the slavery that made it so profitable into the American West, it had become evident to antislavery advocates, both black and white, that the practice was not going to end anytime soon. More radical elements began to campaign for the immediate liberation of the nation’s more than two million enslaved African Americans.
The first black antislavery convention had been held in Philadelphia in September 1830, as African Americans of the urban North worked to create mechanisms to both combat Southern slavery and ameliorate the conditions of their own lives, for even as free people they were subjected to unrelenting racial discrimination. Then, in concert with black abolitionist leaders, a white printer from Newburyport, Massachusetts, named William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the antislavery paper The Liberator on January 1, 1831. A year later Garrison helped to found the New England Anti-Slavery Society, a precursor to the American Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1833. As the antebellum years progressed, there was a measurable increase in both popular and political opposition to maintaining a system of human bondage in a nation founded on ideals of democracy and freedom. Nearly three decades later this elemental conflict would culminate in the bloody Civil War. But before that time, a great many brave individuals, out of conviction or simple humanity, laid their livelihoods and even their lives on the line to support black refugees who chose to take the freedom road.
For fugitives like Lucie Blackburn and her husband, the odds against making a successful escape were staggering. Federal law facilitated the efforts of owners and the brutal slave catchers they employed to retrieve runaways throughout the United States and its territories. Local and state ordinances nearly everywhere prohibited black people from defending themselves against their white captors in courts of law. That so many of the enslaved were able to liberate themselves is astonishing. That uncounted numbers were captured and carried back to places where white men ruled with the lash is unutterably tragic.
Once unearthing the history of the Blackburns had begun, it became apparent why most literature about slavery and the Underground Railroad deals with the general rather than the particular. Rescuing slaves was illegal under the federal Fugitive Slave Law and the much more punitive legislation passed in 1850, so records of Underground Railroad routes and stations are scarce. Only since the middle decades of the twentieth century have most archives and libraries, historical societies and museums begun to preserve evidence pertaining to the heritage of peoples of the African Diaspora on this continent. So much has been discarded, still more destroyed, carelessly and sometimes intentionally. Only a handful of authenticated fugitive slave stories survive, mainly in autobiographies and in narratives recorded by abolitionists.
What genealogists call the “wall of slavery” makes fugitive slave biography extremely difficult to research. Theirs was a heritage of oppression, with the vast majority of its documentation produced by slaveholders rather than slaves, most of the latter of whom were illiterate. The problem lies with names. Although soon after Africans landed in America, they adopted European-style surnames, these were rarely recognized within the slaveholding culture that governed their lives. Most whites, if they acknowledged a surname for their servants at all, assumed that the slaves took the name of their owner. This was indeed often the case in the first generation out of Africa, but slaves were sold, inherited by married daughters, given away, or even raffled off as lottery prizes, and so, within a generation or two, a great many bore names that had no relation at all to the people who now claimed their service. The fact that white culture did not use slave surnames freed black Americans to choose ones they desired, pass them down through the female line as well as the male, and take names that pleased them rather than ones that carried any connection whatsoever to a hated master or difficult mistress. Names of towns and cities were popular, as were the names of people who had been kind to them, important events or battles, and even European heroes or figures from the Revolutionary War era.
To make people even more difficult to trace through history, records kept by white slave owners and overseers only very rarely mentioned slave surnames at all. It was part of the culture of domination they maintained to address even venerable black bondspeople by only their first names, as one might with children or pets. So hundreds of thousands of African Americans were born, lived, and died with no historical notice taken of their existence except, perhaps, their first names and relative ages listed in a white family’s Bible or in plantation account books as “Little Buck, aged 3” or “Suky, cook, 34.” Following the history of specific enslaved African Americans is therefore an exercise in the genealogy and migratory patterns of white slaveholding families. Personal papers might reveal a chance comment about this or that bondsperson. Accounts for medical care may offer insight into a slave’s age or condition. Family relationships can sometimes be inferred from sale documents, wills, or inventories. Hiring agreements help trace the movements of this or that slave over time. The vast population movements after the American Revolution further complicate the process of fugitive slave research. As slaveholders pushed out into the American interior in the successive waves known as the Westward Movement, they carried with them their slaves. Documents directly relevant to the Blackburns’ slave experience have been located in repositories in Washington, D.C., New York, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana, California, and Ontario, Canada.
Archaeology is unique in that it gives voice to the inarticulate and the illiterate of any age, including, in this case, the relatively modern. Each archaeological site is a window to the past; it exposes information about people who lived and worked and died in a specific place, at a fixed time. They left behind, in the very earth, a kind of picture puzzle of their lives. There are always many pieces missing. People’s emotions, hopes, fears, the dreams they dreamed, and the high-held ideals that guided their actions are not to be found in layers of dirt, however carefully sifted. But by placing the material culture of their everyday lives in historical context, one can discover an enormous amount about how the key events and larger social, economic, political, and cultural trends acted upon the people who lived through them. And sometimes, as was the case with the Blackburns, one can discover what role they took for themselves as actors in that great play.
Adapted from an excerpted from I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost. Copyright © 2007 by Karolyn Smardz Frost. All rights reserved to the author and kindly granted to the Unitarian Congregation of Guelph where the author gave an overview of her book and its spiritual connections.