Thornton and Lucie Blackburn -
Former Slaves and Early 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, 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 colour treatment that Thornton Blackburn used on his cabs has been retained to this day by the TTC.
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 neighbours 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.