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Driven to make history

How a fugitive slave founded Toronto’s first taxi company

horse and buggy at night
Image Credit: Ping Zhu

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 8 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

 

W hen Thornton Blackburn arrived in Canada in 1833, like so many immigrants to the New World, he carried with him the dream to create a better life than the one he left behind.

During his first year, Blackburn was working as a waiter when he overheard people talking about a new form of transportation that had just arrived in Montreal. It came from London and was called the hackney cab.

The first cabs looked very different than the taxis of today. They were horse-drawn carriages and the driver sat up front, exposed to the elements. In 1837 Thornton Blackburn had one built that was painted yellow with red trim. He called it “The City” and began driving passengers around for a fee.

 

old cab in front of cabin
York Pioneer and Historical Society with Thornton Blackburn’s cab in front of the Scadding Cabin, circa 1895. Image courtesy of the York Pioneer and Historical Society Archive

 

In doing so, he started the first taxi business in Toronto.

It was impressive feat for a new immigrant, and all the more impressive given that Thornton Blackburn was a fugitive slave from the American South — one of around 35,000 escapees from slavery who settled in Canada before the Civil War.

“If he couldn’t read or write, he certainly was just fine with numbers,” says Smardz Frost.

“He wanted to be in charge of his own life and he and his wife wanted to be independent,” says Karolyn Smardz Frost, a historian who spent 20 years researching the life of Blackburn and his wife, Lucie.

By starting his own business, Blackburn was able to generate income that he and Lucie could control. It’s an empowering position for anyone, but was especially meaningful to the Blackburns, who had never earned wages for their labor under slavery. They did so well that Blackburn, who was illiterate, was able to retire at age 55.

“If he couldn’t read or write, he certainly was just fine with numbers,” says Smardz Frost.

 

Thornton Blackburn
Illustration by Andrew Hutchison

“The very night that they were judged to be sent back to slavery, the local black community met,” says Smardz Frost. “Those families got together and figured out a way to rescue the Blackburns.”

To understand the story of the Blackburns and all that they achieved, it’s important to understand where they came from. The Blackburns were born into slavery in Kentucky. Thornton was hired out to a dry goods store and Lucie was a nursemaid to a family. After her owners died, Lucie was auctioned off and was going to be sent away.

On the eve of their forced separation, the couple, forged free papers in hand, talked their way onto a steamboat north.

They spent the next two years in Detroit, until they were recognized and caught. The story of how the eluded their captors and escaped across the river to Canada is one for the history books.

“The very night that they were judged to be sent back to slavery, the local black community met,” says Smardz Frost. “Those families got together and figured out a way to rescue the Blackburns.”

Lucie was able to slip out of her jail cell after a visitor switched places with her. Thornton’s escape was more dramatic. His captors brought him to the jailhouse door with shackles on his hands and feet and intended to send him back to Kentucky. Detroit residents had another idea.

“The community, black and white, rose up and marched down the street towards the jail,” says Smardz Frost.

 

fugitive slave notice
Fugitive slave notice for Thornton posted in the Louisville Public Advertiser on July 7, 1831. Image courtesy of Karolyn Smardz Frost

 

When the crowd reached the jailhouse, someone threw Thornton a pistol and instructed him to shoot the sheriff. Wisely, he didn’t. A group of men then grabbed Thornton and raced towards the river, where they put him in a small boat. Across the river in Canada, he reunited with Lucie and they began their life in freedom.

The story could end here, with Thornton becoming a successful businessman, but it doesn’t. Instead of getting comfortable with their newfound wealth, the Blackburns lived out their days modestly and channeled their money into helping others.

A year after Thornton began driving passengers around in his cab, he had saved enough money to buy his mother out of slavery. He bravely took the Underground Railroad back to the Kentucky border to rescue the woman he had been taken from when he was 3-years-old.

 

plaque honoring Blackburns
In 2002 a plaque honoring the memory of Thornton and his wife Lucie was erected in Toronto. Image courtesy of Achetron

 

The Blackburns were very active in antislavery activities in Toronto and built six houses, which they rented for a pittance to families of fugitive slaves who had made it across the border.

They were eventually designated persons of national historic significance in Canada, and their story is still taught to schoolchildren there, but Smardz Frost dreams of a day when they are household names.

“It’s a story of hope, freedom, human ingenuity, courage and business development that I think deserves to be known on a much broader scale,” she says.

 

Work in Progress story produced by Tara Brockwell.

 

Emily Brady has never ridden in a horse and carriage.

 

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