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I've Got a Home in Glory Land

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9780374531256: I've Got a Home in Glory Land
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It was the day before Independence Day, 1833. As his bride, Lucie, was about to be sold down the river, Thornton Blackburn planned a daring―and successful―daylight escape from their Louisville masters. Pursued to Michigan, the couple was captured and sentenced to return to Kentucky in chains. But Detroit's black community rallied to their cause in the Blackburn Riots of 1833, the first racial uprising in the city's history. Thornton and Lucie were spirited across the river to Canada, but their safety proved illusory when Michigan's governor demanded their extradition. Canada's defense of the Blackburns set the tone for all future diplomatic relations with the United States over the thorny issue of the fugitive slave, and confirmed the British colony as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad.

The Blackburns settled in Toronto, where they founded the city's first taxi business, but they never forgot the millions who still suffered in slavery. Working with prominent abolitionists, Thornton and Lucie made their home a haven for runaways. When they died in the 1890s with no descendants to pass on their fascinating tale, it was lost to history. Lost, that is, until archaeologists brought the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn again to light.

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About the Author:

Karolyn Smardz Frost is internationally recognized for her work in public archaeology and history. A native of Toronto, she now lives in Collingwood, Ontario.

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Introduction
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.
 
The Blackburn saga is framed within the history of Africans in America and their ongoing resistance to the inferior and exploited status colonialism thrust upon them. This rejection of their enslavement by the turn of the nineteenth century had culminated in the establishment of well-worn paths leading out of the slave states. These clandestine routes and the courageous individuals who assisted those who traveled came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
 
The Underground Railroad occupies a very special place in the North American saga. Tales of hidden tunnels and false-bottomed wagons, perilous escapes by night and brazen daylight rescues all paint an enthralling picture. Yet the stories we learn are filtered through much embroidered late-nineteenth-century accounts by white authors. In the place of the daring freedom-seekers who made the perilous journey north, the heroes have become whites who helped them on their way. Yet surviving slave narratives show that most people escaped alone and unaided. Years after Kentucky-born author, poet, and playwright William Wells Brown fled slavery in 1834, he wrote, “When I escaped there was no Underground Railroad. The North Star was, in many instances, the only friend that the weary and footsore fugitive found on his pilgrimage to his new home among strangers.” Mattie J. Jackson told the same story: “My parents had never learned the rescuing scheme of the underground railroad which had borne so many thousands to the standard of freedom and victories. They knew no other resource than to depend upon their own chance in running away and secreting themselves.” Lost in the mythology, too, are the free blacks of the Northern states who risked far more than their white counterparts when they hid a desperate fugitive in a barn, or passed a meal over the fence to a starving family. This book is, in part, an attempt to set the Underground Railroad’s record straight. The Blackburns traveled the routes of the Underground Railroad as it was, rather than as myth and legend would have it be.
 
No one will ever know how many African Americans fled slavery in the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Black people in the United States had been escaping those who claimed their service almost since the first Dutch slave ship landed her human cargo at Jamestown in 1619. Some runaways formed maroon communities beyond the outposts of white settlement. Others went to Spanish Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and a tiny proportion reached Britain, Europe, and Africa. Estimates of those who came to Canada range between 20,000 and 100,000. Reliable contemporary observers place the number at somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 over the entire antebellum period.
 
African Americans waged a daily, unrelenting battle against their enslaved condition. Well aware that their value to their owners lay in their unpaid labor, they engaged in acts of resistance calculated to undermine the slaveholder’s profit margin: breaking tools, injuring livestock, or “malingering,” simply pretending to be ill. Charismatic leaders arose to foment revolts always limited in scale and quickly contained, but these struck terror into the hearts of whites across the South. Such collective resistance was relatively rare, for the entire system of the slaveocracy militated against bondspeople being able to organize or arm themselves. Instead, when the beatings, hunger, and the destruction of family occasioned by sale and sexual interference became too much to bear, African Americans made the single most overtly antislavery statement possible, short of suicide or murder: they ran away. In so doing, they deprived their owners not only of their productivity and of their own market value but also that of their children and all ensuing generations. Even more potently, the thousands of slaves who “stole themselves” exploded the comforting racist myth that buttressed American slavery: that blacks were unfit for freedom, too lazy and unintelligent to care for themselves without white supervision, and that they preferred the kindly oversight of benevolent masters—that they were, indeed, “happy in their chains.”
 
In a Christian nation founded upon republican principles, the commodification of black labor required moral justification. White America found ways of separating itself from blacks as fellow human beings. No lesser an authority than Thomas Jefferson wrote, ...

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