Lucie and Thornton Blackburn’s house was of modest size on a small lot at 54 Eastern Avenue, at Sumach Street, now the south-east corner of the playground of the Sackville Street School, which was built in 1887. Their home had long since been demolished and the couple all but forgotten, when, in 1985, Karolyn Smardz Frost and others, supported by The Toronto Board of Education, found out that the property had belonged to the Blackburns from old street directories and decided to excavate the corner of the school yard as they were fascinated with the Underground Railroad and the educational possibilities presented. Thus the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Public Archaeology Project was initiated.
The Blackburns were African American slaves who fled from Louisville Kentucky , via the Underground Railway. Their journey first took them to Detroit, where they stayed for a couple of years. Unfortunately they were recognized and jailed. They escaped with the help of Detroit’s black residents and arrived in the new City of Toronto in 1834, where they became prominent and prosperous members of Toronto’s Black community. The escape from Detroit was not without incident. Two women visited Lucie Blackburn in jail. While there one of them exchanged clothes with her, and she was able to walk undetected. She was then whisked across the Detroit River into Canada. Thornton’s escape was more difficult as he was heavily guarded, bound and shackled. A crowd of 400 men had to storm the jail to free him; this was that city’s first race riot. In Upper Canada, Lieutenant-Governor Colborne refused extradition back to the United States, noting that a person could not steal himself.
Shortly after they arrived here, the Blackburns built a small one-storey frame house at #54 Eastern Avenue at the corner of Sackville Street, where they lived for over fifty years. His first job was waiting at the Osgoode Hall dining room, but they decided to go into business for themselves. Having learned about the taxi cabs in Montreal, he got hold of the plans for one and contracted with Paul Bishop, a skilful mechanic, whose shop was in the neighbourhood, for a cab to be made of this design. Blackburn called his one- horse cab the “City” and painted it yellow and red. It was entered from the back, and accommodated four passengers. The driver sat on his box in front. This was the first taxi cab in Upper Canada. His cab business was very successful and many others followed his example. At his death in 1890, he left Lucie $17,000, which was a considerable sum in those days. Many people remembered and wrote about special trips they took in the “City.” The Blackburns participated in antislavery and community activities, and donated both time and money to help other fugitive slaves settle in their adopted home.
In 1999, the Canadian government designated the Blackburns “Persons of National Historic Significance” for their important contribution to the growth of Toronto and, in 2002, plaques in their honour were erected in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Toronto. This site has been fully excavated by the Archaeological Resource Centre under the Board of Education, SEED, Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, and the Ontario Heritage Foundation in the summer of 1985. The school building is now used by the Inglenook Community School, an alternative high school.
Information from “A Glimpse of Toronto’s History” MPLS#219; “The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!” by Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper and Karolyn Smardz Frost; an article in The Courier-Journal of Louisville Kentucky by Andrew Wolfson and a personal communication from Ms Frost. For those who would like to know more about the Blackburns, Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book “I’ve Got A Home In Glory Land” is recommended.