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Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act

For the week of Monday February 1, 2010

On February 7, 1870, the Detroit Daily Post published “Our New Voters,” an article about the Detroit riots of 1833, more specifically, the Blackburn Riots that evolved after Thornton and Lucie Blackburn escaped from the Detroit jail.

"Black fugitives awaiting their voyage to freedom"
© Broadside Collection / Metropolitan Toronto Library Board

The Blackburns had been arrested as fugitive slaves from Kentucky. While Lucie was rescued by a clever friend who swapped clothes with her, Thornton was kidnapped by anti-slavery activists. With the help of the rioters, Thornton and Lucie escaped to Upper Canada where they were safe from their southern slave owners … or were they?

The American Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 had allowed Thornton and Lucie’s owners to recapture them in Detroit. The mayor of Detroit contacted officials in Upper Canada and demanded the return of the Blackburns so that they could be prosecuted for allegedly inciting the Blackburn Riots and murdering the sheriff who died from injuries sustained in the chaos. Their slave status was unmentioned, although Upper Canadian officials rightly suspected that this was the true motive behind the request for the Blackburns’ return.

Fortunately for the Blackburns, an Imperial Statute of 1833 had made slavery illegal in Upper Canada, and the Fugitive Offenders Act protected from extradition those who had not committed a crime under Canadian law. Upper Canadian officials denied the Detroit mayor’s request, maintaining that the act of escaping slavery was not a crime punishable under Canadian law. Any slave, once on Upper Canadian soil, was safely out of reach of Southern slave owners.

Tombstone of Thornton Blackburn at the Toronto Necropolis
© Karolyn Smardz Frost

After twice thwarting their American slave owners, the Blackburns travelled to Toronto, where they established the city’s first cab company, “The City.” Using income from their cab company, the Blackburns became involved in the black self-help and anti-slavery movements. They provided housing and support to other fugitive slaves who managed to escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad. Eventually Thornton served as vice-president of the Canadian Mill and Mercantile Association, which created jobs for poor fugitive slaves in Canada.

For their contribution to the growth of Toronto and their symbolic importance to Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for fugitive slaves, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were designated Persons of National Historic Significance in 1999.

February is Black History Month. For more stories on Black history, see: Black Pioneers in British Columbia; Breaking Down Racial Barriers Through MusicChampion of Freedom!; Josiah Henson - Birth of a Leader; One of Boxing's Best is Born!; Sam Langford; Slavery Attacked in Upper Canada; A Cry for Land; The Fight against Racial Discrimination and The First Black Battalion in Canada.

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