On this day in 1831: Blackburn slaves escape for freedom

By: - July 3, 2021 5:01 am

Kentucky Historical Marker | Ken Coleman photo

On July 3, 1831, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, Black slaves, bolted from Louisville, Ky., headed for freedom. The couple would arrive nearly 360 miles North in Detroit several weeks later.

During their stay in the Motor City, the Blackburns became immersed in the free state of Michigan. That is, until Kentucky authorities trekked North and arrested them in 1833. At that point, a civil uprising touched off after the fugitive slave couple had been apprehended by the slave catchers and were poised to be returned to their white master in Kentucky, under the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act.

A crowd of Black residents gathered at the Wayne County Jail to protest a court verdict upholding the claim by agents of the Kentucky master. The sheriff abandoned his deputy, returned to the jail and locked the door. The protesters then attacked the sheriff’s deputy. Several of them hauled Lucie in a wagon to the Detroit River. They didn’t have any money to pay for his trip across the river to Canada, so one man sacrificed his gold watch.

Thornton would later escape. Once the Blackburns were in Canada, Gov. Stephens T. Mason of the Michigan territory demanded that Canada return the couple to Michigan. However, according to Canadian law, slaves could only be extradited — or sent back — if they had committed a crime in their country of origin. Escaping slavery was not a crime under Canadian law. Mason called the protest a riot and accused the Blackburns of starting it. Upper Canada’s Lt. Gov.  John Colborne was an abolitionist — someone who supported ending slavery. He refused to return the Blackburns to Michigan. The couple was finally free.

In 1834, they moved to Toronto. Thornton Blackburn worked as a waiter. Later, he started the first cab company in Upper Canada (now called Ontario). The couple continued their activism in Canada. In 1851, they attended the “Convention of Colored Freemen” at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall and were designated “persons of national historic significance” by the Canada government in 1999.

The 1833 incident is generally considered Detroit’s first racial civil uprising.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.