Thornton Blackburn was born in Washington, Kentucky about 1812. His mother, Sibby, enslaved by the Smith family, had traveled down the Ohio River on a flatboat from Virginia to Kentucky in 1792. When Thornton was three years old, he was separated from his mother and gifted to a boy named George Morton Murphy. George’s family lived in the Lashbrook/Murphy house on Old Main Street in Washington.
At age 14, Thornton was taken to Hardinsburg, KY by his new owner, Dr. Gideon Brown. When Dr. Brown died three years later, Thornton was sent to Louisville and hired out as a porter in a dry goods store. There Thornton fell in love with Ruthie, an enslaved Caribbean woman who was working as a nursemaid. Shortly after their marriage in 1831, Ruthie’s owner died suddenly, and she was auctioned off to a local merchant who traded enslaved Kentuckians down to the deep south. The newlyweds escaped boarding a steamboat with forged papers identifying them as free African Americans. They traveled to the Michigan Territory and blended in with the African American community until 1833 when a traveler from Kentucky recognized Thornton. Thornton and Ruthie were arrested and tried as “fugitive slaves”.
The Blackburns were jailed pending the arrival of a steamboat that would carry them back to bondage and, undoubtedly, separate Thornton and Ruthie permanently. On June 16, 1833, two brave women visited Ruthie in her cell. One changed clothes with Ruthie, taking her place, while Ruthie walked out of the jail unnoticed and crossed the border to the Canadian side of the river.
The next day, Thornton was brought in chains to the jailhouse to be transported back to Kentucky when more than 100 armed men and women marched up the street to save him. Thornton and seven of his rescuers fled across the Detroit River to Canada.
Upon arriving in Canada, Thornton and Ruthie were again jailed. The Mayor of Detroit accused them of inciting civil unrest and the attempted murder of the Sheriff of Detroit. However, Canada’s Lieutenant-Governor, Sr. John Colborne, ruled that Thornton and Ruthie could not be returned to Kentucky and slavery since enslavery was not a punishment imposed for any crime in British Colonial Canada.
To mark her newfound freedom, Ruthie changed her name to Lucie. The Blackburns made their way to Toronto where he worked briefly as a waiter before opening a cab company in 1837 called The City. His hackney style cab was painted yellow with red trim, colors still used in Toronto Transit Commission’s logo.
Sometime in the late 1830’s, Thornton made a daring return to Kentucky, with the assistance of the Underground Railroad, to rescue his mother, Sibby, and bring her to Toronto where she lived with her son Alfred who had reunited with Thornton a few years prior.
The Blackburns became prominent and affluent members of Toronto’s Black community. They staunchly supported the abolition movement, and their house served as a shelter for incoming freedom seekers from the U.S. Thornton was a delegate to the Convention of Colored Freemen held in September 1851 and appointed Vice President of the Canadian Mill and Mercantile Association which was funded by black businesspeople and built a sawmill, flour mill, and general store to provide jobs for formerly enslaved people.
After the Civil War, Thornton and Lucie retired and lived off the interest of their investments for the rest of their lives. When Thornton died in 1890, he left his widow $18,000, a fortune at that time, and six houses. Lucie died five years later.
Having escaped the horrors of slavery, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn faced challenges at every turn but persevered to become prominent members of Toronto’s Black community. In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada named the Blackburns Persons of National Historic Significance, and in 2016, George Brown College opened the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre commemorating the fact that the Blackburns were active in anti-slavery causes in Toronto.Blackburn-Thornton-Timeline-from-Ancestry-page