1833 : Thorton Blackbird and his Wife Lucie, Runaway Slaves, Rescued by Detroit African Americans

June 17, 2018 all-day

Runaway slaves Thorton Blackburn and Lucie escaped Kentucky, made their way to Michigan where they married and settled into a good life in Detroit. Unfortunately a visitor recognized Thorton and reported his presence to their former owners. Fugitive slave hunters arrived in Detroit and asked the sheriff to imprison the Blackburns until a court could determine whether the Blackburns were free or slaves. According to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, the Blackburns were determined to be runaways slaves and Michigan had to return them to their owners (June 15, 1833).

Detroit’s Sheriff Wilson knew the local African Americans were very upset with the decision, so he allowed the wives of two leaders of the Black Baptist Church to visit the Blackburns. After a daylong visit, two women left the jail. One was Lucie Blackburn wearing her friend’s clothes. Other friends took Lucie across the Detroit River to Canada. The woman who stayed in the jail in Lucie’s clothes was later freed.

June 17, 1833 was the day Thorton Blackburn was to leave for Kentucky. Sheriff Wilson led him out of jail in chains. Four hundred African American people had gathered to protest sending Thorton back to Kentucky. The sheriff abandoned his deputy, returned to the jail and locked the door. The protesters then attacked the sheriff’s deputy. Several protestors hauled Blackburn 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.

Once the Blackburns were in Canada, twenty-one year old Acting Governor Stephens T. Mason of the Michigan territory requested that Canada return the Blackburns 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. Acting Governor Mason called the protest a riot and accused the Blackburns of starting it. Upper Canada’s Lieutenant Governor John Colborne was an abolitionist—someone who supported ending slavery. He said that he could not understand how Lucie or Thorton Blackburn could have incited a riot while in prison. He refused to return the Blackburns to Michigan. The Blackburns were finally really free.

In 1834, they moved to Toronto. Thorton Blackburn worked as a waiter. Later he started the first cab company in Upper Canada (now called Ontario). The cab, pulled by a horse, was painted red and yellow. He called it The City. Today, you can still see red and yellow cabs in Toronto.

Additional notes : The local sheriff was shot and fatally wounded during the two-day riot freeing Blackburn . It was the first race riot in Detroit, resulting in the first ever Riot Commission formed in the U.S.

Aftermath: Even though Thornton had made his way to Canada, the protests in Detroit did not subside.  Mysterious fires erupted throughout the city: first it was the stable near the jail, and later the Sheriff’s barn was burned down.  Mayor Chapin and the Detroit City Council ordered susptected agitators rounded up and thrown in jail to be tried on June 21 and 22.  Some white sympathizers were also charged, but out of the twenty-nine people who were tried for “unlawful assembly and a riot”, the eleven sentenced were all black.  Several…were either imprisoned for several weeks or ordered to work on municipal repair gangs.  In addition to the trials, blacks in the city were obligated to carry a lit lantern at night to make them visible to whites and a night watch was established to patrol the river.

The conflict that began as an effort to save the Blackburns from reenslavement turned into a community-wide expression of race animosity. Angry whites began assaulting black Detroiters on the streets, and white mobs burned over forty black dwellings to the ground. Yet despite clear intentions to repress black mobility and political expression, black protest against the institutional forces at work in Detroit continued.  Black dissenters organized a march in July of 1833 to demand the release of jailed detroiters who were not charges for any crimes. Rumors even spread that Afro-Canadians from Fort Malden were plotting to cross the river and set fire to the city. Finally on July 11, the jail erupted in a blaze of fire.

Mayor Chapin wrote the U.S. Secretary of War to request federal troops from Fort Gratiot.  The troops arrived on July 30, 1833 and martial law followed.  The mayor ordered that all black residents within the city limited had to pay a bond of $500 or leave the city.  The result was a massive outmigration of black residents across the border to Canada.
Sources :

Thornton Blackburn wikipedia entry

The Blackburns Escape : Michigan Time Traveler Kid’s History, February 2, 2004.  An account more suitable for children.

Blackburn Riots of 1833, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History Research.   A condensation of Kaarlyn Smarz Frost, “I’ve God A Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.  New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.  An account more suitable for adults.

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