It was the day before Independence Day, 1831. As his bride, Lucie, was about to be "sold down the river" to the slave markets of New Orleans, young Thornton Blackburn 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 defense of the Blackburns by Canada's lieutenant governor set precedents for all future fugitive-slave cases.
The Blackburns 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. 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.
In 1985, archeologists in downtown Toronto discovered what would become the most highly publicized dig in Canadian history: the remains of a house belonging to former slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who, as it turns out, were key figures in the Underground Railroad. Fleeing Louisville, Ky., in 1831, shortly before Lucie was to be sold down the river, the Blackburns used forged documents to cross the Ohio River and eventually make their way to Detroit. They built a life in the "nominally Free Territory of Michigan," until Thornton was recognized and arrested, along with Lucie. Before they could be convicted and returned to slavery, though, the first racial uprising in Detroit-a crowd of friends and abolitionists who marched on the jail-gave them the opportunity to escape. Fleeing to Toronto, Thornton's case established the promise of the Underground Railroad: Canada's refusal to turn the former slaves over to Michigan's governor established Canada as a haven for escaped slaves (so long as they weren't wanted for capital crimes). Frost spent years researching this story, as attested to by 100-plus pages of notes. Unfortunately, the voices and personalities of the Blackburns themselves remain sketchy; Frost fills in numerous chinks in their story, using first-hand accounts from others in similar situations, but it still feels like the Thorntons have, once again, evaded capture.