All Thornton and his wife Lucie Blackburn wanted was freedom when they came to Detroit in 1831. The African-American couple came to what was then still Michigan territory to escape the inhumane, but legal institution of slavery in Kentucky.
Little did the couple know, but their escape to Detroit was just a prelude to a bigger story; a story that would impact tens of thousands in the future.
Today, we imagine the Underground Railroad as an well-set up network. But nearly half the people who escaped slavery did it with very little help, said Karolyn Smardz Frost, a historian and archeologist from Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
Frost, author of I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, joined the Michigan History Center’s Mark Harvey to tell the story of the Blackburns’ escape.
Back in Kentucky, the couple was separated. Lucie was to be sold in New Orleans. Before her transfer, the couple “dressed in their very finest clothes and went to the dock yards, armed with forged freedom papers. And they talked their way onto a steamboat,” Frost said.
They landed on free soil in Cincinnati on the Fourth of July.
But their luck didn’t stick when the couple settled in Detroit. Someone recognized Thornton and told the Blackburns’ former owners. Both Thornton and Lucie were arrested and incarcerated.
Detroiters protested and packed the balcony of the court during the Blackburn trial, armed and angry.
“They swore they would burn Detroit to the ground if the Blackburns were returned to their former owners,” Frost said.
The couple was sent to the town jail (currently the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library) rather than being turned directly over to the slave catchers. The next day, a Sunday, two women asked the jailer if they could visit Lucie and pray with her. That evening, two women left the jail, weeping and sobbing. One of them was Lucie.
By Monday morning, Lucie had escaped across the river to Canada. Thornton, in chains, was brought to the door of the jail. Down the street stormed a crowd of more than 200 blacks and whites, gathering to rescue Thornton.
“They pulled Thornton into a cart and took him off on a wild ride towards the river,” Frost said.
The mayor of Detroit sent a letter to the sheriff of the Western District of Upper Canada asking for the Blackburns back, accusing them of capital crimes. But the sheriff was an abolitionist. He and his attorney general argued that they could not return the Blackburns, who would become slaves again no matter the verdict. That punishment in the United States was harsher than the punishment in Canada, where slavery was about to be officially abolished.
“We still use that legislation” in Canada, Frost said. “This case was the case that made it a legal haven, that ensured protection” for future Americans escaping slavery.
A handful of years later, after settling with Lucie in Toronto, Thornton went back to Detroit. With the help of Detroiters, he brought his mother to freedom in Canada too.
“Sounds like a movie,” Harvey said.
Listen to the full interview above.
You can view documents related to the Blackburns at the Michigan History Center here.
This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.