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North Toward Home
New York Times - Sunday Book Review
Published: June 17, 2007

Thornton Blackburn is hardly a household name, but he was an important figure in the history of American slavery. In “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land,” the historian and archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost rescues him from obscurity and shows how he helped make Canada a safe haven for fugitive slaves.

Born into slavery in Kentucky in about 1812, Blackburn escaped with his wife to Detroit in 1831. They lived there for two years before they were captured and jailed, to be sent back in chains to their Southern owners. Dramatically, they were rescued by friends and spirited across the Detroit River to Canada. But they still weren’t out of the reach of their American owners. Canada had abolished slavery but didn’t have a firm policy on fugitive slaves. Imprisoned again, the Blackburns faced the bleak prospect of a forced return to the United States. In a landmark trial, however, a Canadian court ruled that they had committed no capital crime and could not be extradited to America. Canada was thereafter regarded as a protective home by fugitive blacks who wanted to live without fear of being recaptured and sent south.

Like most ex-slaves, the Blackburns were illiterate — they signed their names with an X — and left no autobiographical record. They would probably have remained unknown were it not for Frost’s heroic research. In 1985, she led an archaeological dig beneath a Toronto schoolyard that uncovered the remains of the Blackburns’ home — some broken household items, horseshoe nails, a dog collar, bricks heaped in a pit. The find was significant enough to attract worldwide attention and establish the place as a historic site on the Canadian Underground Railroad. Frost then spent two decades piecing together the Blackburns’ tale from scattered sources like court records, census reports and artifacts almost two centuries old. She visited many of the places the Blackburns lived or passed through. The result of her unflagging detective work is this absorbing book.

After describing the archaeological dig and its aftermath, Frost recreates a crucial day in the lives of the Blackburns: July 3, 1831, when they escaped Kentucky disguised as free blacks. The beauty of the escape was its simplicity. Using false papers indicating that they were free persons of color, the Blackburns ferried from Louisville across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana and caught a steamboat that carried them 132 miles north to Cincinnati. From there they traveled by stagecoach to Detroit.

The events leading up to and following this flight from slavery form the bulk of Frost’s book. A domestic slave, Thornton Blackburn had a succession of owners before coming under the control of a family in Louisville. There he met his future wife, Ruthie, a beautiful, light-skinned mulatto woman owned by a local merchant, George Backus. Although Thornton and Ruthie were married by a black minister, they lived apart, since marriages between slaves were not legal. The death of Backus and his family resulted in an estate sale in which Ruthie was bought by a prominent merchant, Virgil McKnight.

Did McKnight plan to sell Ruthie “down the river” — to New Orleans, perhaps — where, like many attractive female slaves, she would be forced into prostitution? Frost raises this and other unsavory possibilities as reasons for the Blackburns’ decision to attempt their daring escape. She also makes clear that flight was no sure ticket to safety, recreating the constant tension under which the Blackburns lived, subject as they were to discovery and arrest as fugitive slaves.

Frost shows too the inspiring solidarity among antislavery forces that led to the Blackburns’ freedom. Especially moving is her account of their escape from jail. Ruthie walked out of her cell by exchanging clothes with a friend who stayed behind in her place. The next day Thornton was rescued by a mob of supporters outside the jail, who overwhelmed his guards and took him to the boat that carried him to Canada. The event became known as the Blackburn riots of 1833, the first racial uprising in Detroit history.

The Canadian part of the Blackburns’ story has a drama of its own. Their imprisonment and exoneration, followed by the landmark court decision that prevented their extradition to the United States, opened the way to future black émigrés, for whom Canada was now truly “Glory Land.” Thornton and his wife settled in Toronto, where they lived respectably and became active in the antislavery cause.
Frost relies on a fair amount of guesswork to reconstruct the Blackburns’ lives. Words and phrases like “probably,” “must have been” and “it would seem that” pop up often. But “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” is as authentically historical as it could be, given the scanty evidence Frost is working with. The book can be enjoyed as a historical biography plausibly embellished for readability.

Around 35,000 escapees from slavery settled in Canada before the Civil War. As Karolyn Frost persuasively shows, many of them owed their newfound security to Ruthie and Thornton Blackburn, a pioneering couple most of them had never heard of.

David S. Reynolds, distinguished professor of English at Baruch College, is the author, most recently, of “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.”



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