Sunday, 30 March 2014



For this week post, I thought I would share some Toronto African Canadian history. Have you ever been sitting in a cab and wondered who started the first cab company in Ontario?

In 1985, as part of archaeological programme for the Toronto School Board, Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost found the remnants of a house, shed, and cellar. Intrigued by her find, Smardz Frost investigated it further and found that the property had been previously owned by a Mr. Thornton Blackburn. Searching the Toronto Census for the name Blackburn, Smardz Frost made a discovery that would change the course of her life forever. Blackburn’s ethnicity was labelled as coloured and his occupation was cab man. Smardz Frost would dedicate the next 18 years of her life to researching the Blackburns’ story. This commitment translated into her work as she returned to school to complete her doctorate in order to ensure that she was employing the proper research methods that would do justice to the Blackburns’ story.

Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost

Fugitive slaves from Kentucky, Thornton and his wife Lucie escaped from slavery in 1831 after hearing that Lucie was to be sold to another plantation owner in a different state. Settling in Detroit, in 1833, the couple was discovered and arrested. Jailed and waiting to be returned to their master, the evening before their journey back to Kentucky, Lucie was spirited out of the jail in a disguise and taken to Sandwich, Upper Canada. The next morning, Thornton was rescued as a large mob made up blacks and whites marched on the jail demanding his release.  This would be the first racial riot in Detroit. The Governor of Michigan demanded that the couple be extradited back to the United States. However, Sir John Colborne, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, refused on the grounds that the Blackburns’ punishment (enslavement) would be more severe than the punishment they would receive for the same crime under British law as slavery had been abolished earlier in year throughout the British Empire. In 1834, the Blackburns relocated to Toronto, where Thornton initially found work as a waiter at Osgoode Hall. Recognizing Toronto’s need for transportation services, the Blackburns had a hackney cab built and named their red cab “The City”. The first cab company in Upper Canada, “The City” was drawn by a single horse. In addition to operating a successful business, the Blackburns were very involved in the abolitionist movement, working alongside none other than one of our Fathers of Confederation, George Brown. When Thornton passed away, Lucie sold their property to the Toronto School Board.

In 1999, fourteen years after their home was excavated, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were named Persons of National Significance. The Blackburns’ story has additionally been featured in numerous Museum exhibitions, including the Rom’s Underground Railroad Toronto: Next Stop Freedom as well as in Smardz Frost’s Governor General Award winning book “I’ve Got a Home of Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad”.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn’s Person of National Significance Plaque.


  1. This story is fascinating - what incredible histories hide behind homes and their owners. I am glad to see the plaque acknowleding the role of the Blackburns for the history of the city - do you know where the plaque is located?

  2. This story has always been one that I loved to share during tours that I would conduct when discussing the impetuses for fugitive slaves to come to Canada. There is so much more to their story that I did not mention. The plaque is located on the site of their former home at 19 Sackville Street.