The Blackburns, who married while en route to their new city, settled in and became fixtures of the community. However, the fugitive slave laws of the time allowed slaveowners to apprehend escaped slaves who traveled to the North. The Blackburns were jailed and went through several court proceedings in a bid to remain free. As Detroit was one of the many routes of the Underground Railroad, many free Blacks in the city were sympathetic to the Blackburns’ plight and hatched a plan to secure their freedom.Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were a pair of escaped slaves from Kentucky who settled in Detroit in 1831. The couple was jailed in Detroit after being declared fugitives, but a daring plot to secure their freedom officially began the city’s anti-slavery movement.
The Blackburns were allowed frequent visits at the jail that housed them, with many of the city’s elite coming to offer words of encouragement. When Caroline French and Tabitha Lightfoot, well-connected members of the community, visited Lucie, French switched clothes with her to enable Blackburn to get across the Detroit River into Essex County, Canada.
The escape infuriated both Detroit and Kentucky officials and sped up the timeline of the Blackburns’ delivery. As Thornton was still in chains, the speedy actions of the community came at just the right time. On June 17, 1833, Detroit’s first race riot ensued with around 500 angry and armed Blacks demanding Blackburn’s freedom. The situation was so tense that the sheriff and deputy hid inside the jail and even allowed Blackburn to go address the crowd.
According to one account, someone handed Blackburn a gun and he aimed the weapon at the sheriff. In a struggle between the men, the sheriff was knocked to the ground and a pair of elderly individuals, reportedly named Daddy Walker and Sleepy Polly, threw Blackburn into the same stagecoach that was bound for Kentucky and shipped him to Essex County to join his wife.
Although Mr. Blackburn could not read, he began Toronto’s first taxi service using a cart and horses. By the time of his death near the end of the 19th Century, he had amassed a sizable amount of wealth which he left to his wife. The couple never had children.
In 1985, archaeologists began researching the Blackburns’ history and uncovered several artifacts from the lands they owned. In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Blackburns “Persons of National Historic Significance” because of their fight for freedom. They were also credited with helping with the growth of Toronto as well.
In 2002, the couple had plaques placed in their honor at the site of their home in Toronto, and also in Louisville, Ky.