Governor General’s Award nominee unearths forgotten history

The Boston Globe calls it “an invaluable testament to resistance, resilience, and a once-denied but unalienable right to life and liberty.” Nominated for the 2007 Governor General’s Award in the category of non-fiction, it has been acclaimed by others as “one of the most valuable pieces of Canadian history.” But to Toronto-born archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost, a contract faculty member in the Atkinson School of Arts & Letters at York University, her book, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007), represents thousands of lost voices from the past – forgotten accounts that are stumbled upon by accident and yet leave an indelible mark.

Right: Karolyn Smardz Frost. Photograph by Jerry Bauer.

In 1985, during a public excavation at the Sackville Street School playground in Toronto, Frost discovered traces of a house, shed and cellar. Municipal records revealed that the original landowner was “Thornton Blackburn, cabman, coloured.” As the excavation progressed, intriguing clues arose about the past of the couple who lived there. The trail led to a late-19th-century newspaper article printed in the Toronto Telegram. It credited Thornton and Lucie Blackburn as Toronto’s first taxicab business owners.

The Toronto Necropolis revealed that Thornton Blackburn was born in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1812. Following a hunch, Frost traced the Blackburns’ trail to reports from Michigan on the “Blackburn Riots of 1831”. Piecing the clues together it became clear: Frost had stumbled upon the lost story of two fugitive slaves and begun the first archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site in Canada.

So began more than 20 years of historical detective work. Frost’s research revealed that the Blackburns were more than just fugitive slaves, but also history makers – heroic individuals who paved the way to freedom for themselves and others.

In 1831 in Louisville, Kentucky, the Blackburns made a daring daylight escape from slavery disguised in fine clothing and armed with forged papers. They convinced a steamboat captain they were “free people” and landed on the shores of Cincinnati, Ohio – ironically on July 4, Independence Day. The couple caught a stagecoach to Detroit, Michigan, where they lived for two years in the city’s small African-American community. Their safety proved illusory, however. They were discovered, tried, convicted, and sentenced to return to a lifetime of slavery.

More than 200 men and women rallied together in Detroit’s first race riot to help the couple escape. Amazingly, the Blackburns managed to flee to Canada – Thornton, armed, was carried off in the very wagon that was to be used to return him to Kentucky and Lucie stealing away wearing borrowed clothing.

The Blackburns’ arrival in Canada led to the landmark case that set the precedent for all fugitive slave disputes between the United States and Canada. Michigan’s Territorial Governor demanded their return but was denied. The case resulted in the formation of British North America’s first articulated legal rationale for harbouring fugitive slaves. It also established Canada as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad. Most significantly, this was Canada’s first piece of public policy on refugee reception. 

Their arrival in Canada did not mean an end to Thornton and Lucie’s quest for freedom. The Blackburns became lifelong activists in the anti-slavery movement. Unfortunately, the couple were unable to read or write and they did not have any children. If not for Frost’s accidental discovery, the Blackburns’ gripping tale might have remained untold.

In 1999 the Blackburns were designated “Persons of National Historic Significance” in Canada. Frost’s research also led to the first bi-national commemoration of a single flight to freedom in 2002; plaques were erected in their honour in Kentucky and in Toronto.

“I fell in love with the Blackburns,” said Frost. “Their story has come to symbolize the courage, ingenuity and love of liberty that African Americans fought for. It has also become a pillar in Canadian history – an important piece connecting key moments of our heritage.”

Frost’s book is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, which will be announced Nov. 27. She competes against some of Canada’s finest, including Silence of the Songbirds by York biology Professor Bridget Stutchbury (see the April 20, 2007 issue of YFile). “This nomination is not just an honour for me, but it’s an honour for the Blackburns,” said Frost. “Theirs is a love story, a heroic story, a story that unearths over 120 years of race history on both sides of the US-Canadian border.” 

Frost is the executive director for the Ontario Historical Society and sits on the steering committee for York’s Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples. At York, she is helping students become historians. She teaches "The Historian’s Toolkit: Methods and Resources for Researching 19th Century Toronto".

For more information, including a timeline on the Blackburns, visit