Thornton Blackburn (1812 – February 26, 1890) was a refugee from Kentucky slavery whose case established the principle that Upper Canada (now Ontario) would not extradite freedom seekers to a jurisdiction where they might be re-enslaved. It thus established Canada as a safe terminus for the Underground Railroad.
Blackburn was born in Mason County, Kentucky and grew up in Washington, Kentucky, now part of Maysville, Kentucky. He was sold and eventually ended up in Louisville, Kentucky where he met his wife Lucie Blackburn (also Ruth or Ruthy).
On Independence Day weekend, 1831, Thornton and Lucie escaped from Louisville to Michigan. They had been living there for two years when a Louisville traveler recognized them on the street. Their Kentucky owners sent agents to Detroit, demanding the Blackburns' arrest. Tried before Judge Henry Chipman, they were condemned to be returned to slavery. The Blackburns were jailed but were allowed visitors, which provided the opportunity for Lucie to exchange her clothes—and her incarceration—with a Mrs. George French. Lucie was then smuggled across the Detroit River to safety in Amherstburg, in Essex County, Upper Canada.
Thornton's escape was more difficult because he was heavily guarded, bound and shackled. The day Thornton was to be taken to the steamboat docks and returned to Kentucky, Detroit's African American community rose up in protest in The Blackburn Riots. A crowd of about 200 men and women, Black and white, stormed the jail to free him. During the commotion, the Sheriff of Wayne County was badly injured. In a carefully choreographed rescue, two individuals called Sleepy Polly and Daddy Walker helped Thornton escape.
Thornton's supporters procured a horse-cart and conveyed him away from Detroit to the northeast. A posse had formed to pursue Thornton and caught up with the cart about one mile outside of Detroit. Thornton's pursuers then discovered that Thornton had disembarked from the cart shortly after reached the woods. With help from his rescuers, Thornton boarded a boat near the mouth of River Rouge and crossed the Detroit River into Essex County to join his wife.
Once in Essex County, Thornton, his wife, and seven young men who accompanied him were jailed briefly, while two formal requests for their extradition were issued by the Michigan territorial governor. A reply came from the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Sir John Colborne, who refused extradition to the United States, noting that since lifetime slavery was not a punishment for any crime under Upper Canadian law, the Blackburns could not be returned for trial in an American court where that would surely be the outcome. This principle underlies Canadian extradition law to this day.
Thornton eventually reunited with his wife Lucie and they moved to the newly incorporated City of Toronto, arriving in 1834, where he worked as a waiter at Osgoode Hall. Though illiterate, he saw the need for a taxi service, so he obtained blueprints for a cab from Montreal and commissioned its construction. By 1837, he had it: a red and yellow box cab named "The City", drawn by a single horse, and able to carry four passengers, with a driver in a box at the front, which he, himself, would operate. This was Upper Canada's first taxi company, and made the Blackburns wealthy and respected businesspeople in Toronto.
Late in 1837, Thornton made a daring return to Kentucky to bring his mother, Sibby (born c. 1776 in Virginia), back with him to join another son of hers, Alfred, Thornton's brother, who had reached Canada in about 1829. Thornton participated in the North American Convention of Colored Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall in September, 1851, was an associate of anti-slavery leader George Brown who published the Toronto Globe, and helped former slaves settle at Toronto and Buxton.
In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Blackburns "Persons of National Historic Significance" not only for their personal struggle for freedom, but because theirs was emblematic of so many similar, but typically undocumented, cases. Also important, the Blackburns' situation prompted Canada's first articulation of a legal defense against freedom seeker extradition. They were also designated for their contribution to the growth of Toronto, generosity to the less fortunate, and lifelong resistance to slavery. In 2002, plaques in their honor were erected at the site of their excavated house in Toronto, Ontario, and in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1985, an archaeological dig uncovered the foundations of the Thorntons' home, leading to a book about their lives, titled I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, and written by archaeologist and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost who spent more than 20 years researching their lives in slavery and freedom.
In 2015, a steel-cut mural near their former home, entitled "Site Specific", was installed. It depicts the history of the neighborhood, and includes Thornton's cab.
In 2016, a conference center at George Brown College's residence in Toronto's Distillery District was named for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, and a mural depicting their story has been painted in the building's upstairs lobby.