Underground Railroad Marker Dedication
Underground Railroad Marker Dedication
By Karolyn Smardz
On April 26 and 29 of 2002, respectively, historic markers will be placed in Louisville, Kentucky and in Toronto, Canada to recognize the remarkable journey of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn from slavery to freedom. The Kentucky marker is sponsored by the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission which has previously funded a research grant to Karolyn Smardz to document the fugitive couples� Kentucky experiences. The Kentucky State University Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African Americans and the Kentucky Highway Historical Marker Program are co-sponsors as well. Dignitaries from Canada will attend the dedication ceremony in Louisville and a delegation of Kentuckians plan to visit Toronto for the dedication in Canada. This is the first bi-national and joint Canada/US designation of the beginning and end of an Underground Railroad journey.
On July 3, 1831, a well-dressed African-American couple standing on the Ohio River's Indiana shore hailed the steamboat Versailles. When the Versailles pulled in above Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the young people came on board, Captain John Quarrier was instantly suspicious that they might be fugitive slaves. But their free papers were all in order.
Reaching Cincinnati, the couple boarded a stagecoach on the first leg of their journey to Detroit, Michigan. As it pulled away from the station, they both breathed a huge sigh of relief. For Thornton Blackburn and his wife were indeed slaves, in desperate flight from their Louisville, Kentucky, owners. And before they eventually reached Canada two years later, the complex circumstances of their recapture and subsequent rescue during Detroit's first racial riots would make history.
Settling in Toronto in 1834, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn began the first cab company in Upper Canada. Thornton, at incredible personal risk, made a clandestine visit to Kentucky in 1838 and succeeded in rescuing his mother from slavery. Over succeeding decades, the Blackburns demonstrated their staunch support for antislavery and engaged in resettlement efforts on behalf of the ever-increasing numbers of fugitive slaves coming into Canada. The Blackburns devoted their time and much of the considerable profit of their business to the province's Black abolitionist, community development and self-help organizations.
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn died, childless, but well-known and respected in the Toronto community of the 1890s. They left behind considerable estates but signed their wills with an "X". Both members of this remarkable couple were illiterate. A red granite obelisk marks their gravesite in the Toronto Necropolis. It reads:
In memory of Thornton Blackburn
Died Feb. 26, 1890, age 76 years.
A native of Maysville, Kentucky, U.S.A.
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord
The Blackburn story came to light during a 1985 public archaeology project by the Toronto District School Board, the Ontario Black History Society and the Ontario government. More than 3,000 school children and members of the public helped uncover the remains of Thornton and Lucie�s modest frame home. Popular fascination with their tale of courage and initiative resulted in international media attention and literally thousands of visitors to the downtown site.
The Blackburn site remains the only fugitive slave home ever excavated in Canada. Archaeologist Karolyn Smardz has spent much of the past 16 years gathering information for a biography detailing the Blackburns� experience. Most recently, she has worked with the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, and especially with Dr. Anne Butler, to piece together clues about the couple's lives in slavery and details of their flight to freedom.
Thornton and Lucie have, on an international level, come to symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of courage, and of the love of liberty that caused the desperate flight from bondage of literally thousands of enslaved African-Americans. But their escape on the steamboat Versailles, on the day before Independence Day, 1831, was only the first blow struck in the Blackburn's lifelong battle against slavery and the effects of racial oppression. In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Commission of Canada commemorated the Blackburns as "Persons of National Historic Significance.�
Karolyn Smardz is an experienced archaeologist currently completing requirements for a Ph.D. in History at the University of Waterloo.
For information contact Kentucky State University's Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African Americans at (502) 597-6315.