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Black History Month In Canada… Thornton and Lucy Blackburn

Two such refugees from KENTUCKY – Thornton and Lucie Blackburn

Thornton and Lucy Blackburn – Former Slaves & Toronto Entrepreneurs

The Blackburns escaped from slavery in Kentucky and fled to Detroit where they lived until they were discovered and arrested in 1833. Lucy was spirited out of jail the night before she was to be sent back to Kentucky. The next morning, her husband was rescued at the jailhouse door by a huge crowd of both blacks and whites, and together the Blackburns fled across the river to Windsor, Ontario. Again they were put in jail, this time to await extradition. However, Lt. Governor John Colbourne refused to send them back, and they moved to Toronto.

While working as a waiter at Osgoode Hall [law school], Blackburn noted that Toronto lacked public transportation. Using the design of vehicles in use in Montreal and London, England, he ordered the construction of a horse-drawn cab with space to carry four passengers. It was built in Paul Bishop’s workshop located in the building on the northeast corner of Sherbourne and Adelaide streets. Mr. Bishop lived in the house immediately to the south where the building still stands today. The taxi, named The City, and the first of its kind in Toronto, arrived in 1837 heralding the start of a successful business venture that lasted into the 1860s. The red and yellow color treatment that Thornton Blackburn used on his cabs has been retained to this day by the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission].

The Blackburns built a small house at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Sackville Street where they lived for almost 50 years. Thornton died in 1890 leaving his wife with a considerable fortune derived from Toronto’s first taxi business. The foundations of the house that Thornton and his wife lived in, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, have been recently found and preserved.

In 1985 archaeologists digging on this site uncovered fascinating clues to Toronto’s history as a terminus of the famous Underground Railroad. From 1834 to 1890 this site had been the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, refugee slaves from Kentucky who started Toronto’s first taxicab company.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn escaped on July 3, 1831, by taking a steamboat up the Ohio River from Louisville to Cincinnati and then a stagecoach to Michigan. Their recapture in Detroit two years later resulted in the “Blackburn riots of 1833”. Detroit’s Black community staged a dramatic rescue and aided the Blackburns across the border to safety in Canada. Despite two extradition requests by Michigan’s governor, they were allowed to remain free and begin their new lives in Canada.

The Blackburns became well-known members of Toronto’s African Canadian community. They helped to build Little Trinity Anglican Church and contributed to efforts organized to assist other freedom-seekers, both in Toronto and at Buxton in southwestern Ontario. Thornton participated in the “North American Convention of Coloured Freemen” at St. Lawrence Hall in September of 1851 and was an associate of George Brown in anti-slavery activities (note that the Blackburns and Brown are close neighbors in the Necropolis cemetery).

The excavation of the Blackburn’s former home remains the only archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site ever conducted in Toronto.

In 1999, the Department of Canadian Heritage designated Thornton and Lucie Blackburn “Persons of National Historic Significance” in recognition of their generosity to the less fortunate and their lifelong resistance to slavery and racial oppression.

10 Sackville Street - home of the Blackburns for 50 years.
10 Sackville Street – home of the Blackburns for 50 years.

Today’s Sources:

* Cabbagetown People                                                                  

(Note: Cabbagetown is a neighborhood in central Toronto.)

* CBC News Canada                                                   

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

19 thoughts on “Black History Month In Canada… Thornton and Lucy Blackburn”

  1. Dear John Fioravanti,

    I am so enjoying this series of stories in honor of Black History Month.

    This could be a movie, as the Blackburns embarked on quite the perilous adventure with their escape from Kentucky. Their imprisonment in Detroit only to be rescued by Blackburn riots participants is another spell binding tale in its own right. Then as they reached Canada, they were granted sanctuary by Lt. Governor John Colbourne when he refused to honor the US extradition request. In the end their business success and how they helped others in the community in so many ways including working with the underground railroad and building in Church are examples of those who made it past all the horrors.

    I fell in love with this story. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Hugs, Gronda


  2. Thank you for posting these stories. There’s a terrible poignancy in reading these stories of suppression and oppression even when the ending turns out good. My question remains, “Why?” Why do people so such things to each other, and why doesn’t it end?


    1. Unfortunately, part of the answer is economics – greed. The other part of the answer is racism – and in the case of Sex slavery, misogyny. It is difficult to understand the dark side of humanity, but we must continue to fight against it. Thanks, Sha’Tara!


  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    John Fioravanti has shared yet another inspiring story of Black History Month in Canada. The story actually begins in Kentucky and … well, you’ll have to read the rest for yourselves, but it is a wonderful story of two heroic black people who overcame the odds by escaping slavery. Thank you, John, for this wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your reblog, Jill, and your great introduction! I was impressed by the courage of the people in Detroit who rioted so that the Blackburns could escape across the border.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re most welcome … the pleasure is mine! Yes, the people in Detroit impressed me, too, and I’m going to try to look into that more before the month is over. I sometimes ask myself if I would have had the courage to do something like that back in those days? I’m not sure if I would have or not. I like to think so, and I am a scrapper, not afraid of much, but men with guns? A little scary … I’ve had one pointed at me twice in my life and it is not a pleasant experience, to say the least!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I read a good book years ago called “Incidents in the Life of a slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs. If I remember correctly, she was the first black woman to ever set her experiences down in writing (in 1861). Such a sad book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Opher. I’m enjoying what I’m learning as I work on this series. The inspiration for these posts came from Jill Dennison.


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