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In 1985, archaeologists in downtown Toronto
made a remarkable find. Beneath the old Sackville Street School
playground were traces of a house, a shed, and a mysterious cellar.
Municipal records revealed that the original landowner had been
“Thornton Blackburn, cabman, colored.” He and his wife
were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had settled in Toronto in
1834 and had gone on to become wealthy and successful businesspeople.
The Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Site became the first archaeological
dig on an Underground Railroad site in Canada.
The discovery of the Blackburns’ legacy captured the popular
imagination in ways no one could have foreseen. Between June and
October 1985, the site received more publicity than any dig in Canadian
history. Journalists from all over the world interviewed staff,
produced television and radio programs, and published articles that
appeared in newspapers from Kuwait to Japan. Respected scholars
traveled to Toronto to discuss the findings. More than three thousand
schoolchildren and members of the public participated in the summerlong
dig. Thousands of fascinated visitors came to watch, intrigued by
the painstakingly slow process of piecing together the story of
two human lives, written there in the soil in fragments of pottery
and bits of broken glass.
As the excavations progressed, historical research revealed tantalizing
clues about the Blackburns’ past. The trail led to a late-nineteenth-century
newspaper article entitled “The First Cab in the City,”
written by John Ross Robertson, editor of the Toronto Telegram.
It credited this pair of runaway American slaves with initiating
Toronto’s first taxi business. An abolitionist newspaper dating
to 1851 showed Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn as leaders in the campaign
to end slavery in the United States and to help its refugees make
new homes once they reached freedom. Thornton’s tall granite
tombstone in the Toronto Necropolis revealed that he was born in
Maysville, Kentucky, in about 1812. But the most intriguing information
came from Michigan. The “Blackburn Riots of 1831” had
erupted when slave catchers tried to return a man named Thornton
Blackburn and his wife to their Kentucky masters. These were the
first racial riots in the city of Detroit. When the couple sought
refuge in Upper Canada, a sharp diplomatic altercation between Michigan’s
Territorial Governor and the British colonial government of Upper
Canada over their extradition had a very significant result: the
formulation of British North America’s first, articulated
legal rationale for harboring fugitive slaves. In fact, it was the
Blackburn case that formally established Canada as the main terminus
of the Underground Railroad.
Yet until archaeologists discovered the site of their Toronto home,
the Blackburns had been forgotten. They had no children. They never
learned to read or write, and to this day not a single photo of
the couple has come to light. Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were
all but lost to history.
I was the director of that long-ago archaeological project. Intrigued
by what our diggings had uncovered, I set about to learn all I could
about Thornton and his wife. I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land
is the result of almost twenty years of historical detective work.
Government records in Canada and Michigan provided an all-important
key to researching their lives in slavery—the names of Lucie
and Thornton Blackburns’ owners. All trails led back to Kentucky.
As their story took shape, the Blackburn family’s experiences
in slavery and freedom opened a door into the world they knew and
in which they played so vital a part. Set against the backdrop of
antebellum America’s struggle with race and slavery, the Blackburns’
biography illuminates the historical trends that shaped the tangled
histories of people black and white, on this continent. Thornton’s
mother, Sibby, was born in Virginia in about 1776. His wife, Lucie,
died in Canada in 1895. The collective experience of the Blackburns
therefore encompassed some 120 years of history, and on both sides
of the long border the United States shares with Canada. From the
impassioned liberation rhetoric inspired by the American Revolution
through the catastrophe of Jim Crow–era segregation, the events
and the shifting meanings of the words “race” and “freedom”
over these twelve decades shaped modern North American society.
Not knowing how to begin my quest, I fell back on my early training.
Archaeology is unique in that it gives voice to the inarticulate
and the illiterate of any age, including, in this case, the relatively
modern. Each archaeological site is a window to the past; it exposes
information about people who lived and worked and died in a specific
place, at a fixed time. They left behind, in the very earth, a kind
of picture puzzle of their lives. There are always many pieces missing.
People’s emotions, hopes, fears, the dreams they dreamed,
and the high-held ideals that guided their actions are not to be
found in layers of dirt, however carefully sifted. But by placing
the material culture of their everyday lives in historical context,
one can discover an enormous amount about how the key events and
larger social, economic, political, and cultural trends acted upon
the people who lived through them. And sometimes, as was the case
with the Blackburns, one can discover what role they took for themselves
as actors in that great play.
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