George Brown facility named after Thornton and Lucie Blackburn
History-making former slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn are still making news almost 13 decades after their passing in the late 1800s.
While attending the 145th Owen Sound Emancipation celebration festival in the summer of 2007, Greater Toronto Area resident Kim Yamada bought a book, ‘I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land; The Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad’, written by historian Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost who joined author Lawrence Hill and Dr. Afua Cooper for readings at the event.
The book, which won a Governor General Award for non-fiction, recounts the extraordinary lives of the ex-slaves who came to Canada via the Underground Railroad and arrived in Toronto in 1843, becoming prominent and prosperous residents.
In 2008, Yamada went to Washington for U.S President Barack Obama’s historical inauguration and brought back a few buttons, one of which she placed close to the headstone of Thornton Blackburn who is buried with his wife at Toronto Necropolis cemetery.
“After I found where he was buried, I said, ‘Thornton, look what I have brought for you’,” recounted Yamada who resides in Mississauga. “We now have a Black president in the United States.”
Earlier this month, Yamada met Smardz Frost at the dedication of the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn conference centre at George Brown College’s new residence, The George.
“We were chatting and I told her about the button I placed at the headstone and, lo and behold, she knew about it,” said Yamada. “I thought it was buried all these years and no one could see it, but Karen was recently there and laid eyes on that button.”
Yamada said she found the Thornton’s story extremely fascinating.
“They were escaped slaves who came and achieved so much,” she said. “Just think back to their time and what it would have taken for people like them to accomplish the things they did. It’s truly remarkable. I am a big fan of the Blackburns.”
The former slaves established the first cab company in Upper Canada and the first form of public transportation in the province, owned six homes in the city they rented to other fugitives fleeing slavery in the United States and co-founded Trinity Church on King St.
In 1985, Smardz Frost – an award-winning author, historian and archaeologist – excavated the Blackburns’ home.
“This is really a culmination of 31 years of my life and a lot of other people work too,” she said at the launch of the conference centre bearing the Blackburns’ name. “The celebration of their life in a place that is going to be, for many years, a site where knowledge and learning is shared is of great importance to me and a tremendous asset to this city.”
Just over three decades ago, the then Toronto Board of Education launched an archaeology program for students. More than 3,000 worked with Smardz Frost on the Blackburn excavation project that was the first Underground Railroad excavation in Canada.
“The Blackburns had no children and they couldn’t read and write, yet their lives had such significance,” said Smardz Frost. “That excavation propelled me into doing more than 20 years of research on their lives.”
The Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Centre features over 4,500 square feet with capacity for 217 people seated in a table format. It also has a pre-bar function space and two meeting lounges.
“We are delighted to be honouring the important legacy of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn at our new conference centre,” said George Brown president Anne Sado. “The Blackburns were contemporaries of our namesake, George Brown, and together worked on anti-slavery initiatives. In many ways, their story mirrors our own commitment to supporting aspirations of a remarkably diverse student body by instilling in them values of entrepreneurship, activism and leadership.”
The Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was also instrumental in pushing for the conference centre to bear the Blackburns’ name.
“This is a proud moment for us all,” said OBHS president Nikki Clarke. “The Blackburns’ story teaches people of all backgrounds the values of courage and determination.”
Share columnist Murphy Browne and community workers San and Rita Burke attended the opening ceremony. They had worked for years to have a fitting memorial established to honour the Blackburns’ memory.
“It was indeed a pleasure to work with Sam and Rita from the beginning of this project and see it through to the end,” said Browne.
Rita Burke said she and her husband were honoured to be part of the history-making event.
“The opening celebration was fantastic and it was beautifully curated and executed,” she said.
Smardz Frost thanked the Burke’s for their leadership and dedication to the project.
She also said it’s significant that the college bearing George Brown’s name is now tied to the Blackburns.
“Every student that passes through here will learn about the history of the Blackburns,” she said. “They will also learn about the quest for freedom that was paramount for the African-Americans who became African-Canadians because they came here to find freedom for themselves. The Blackburns’ were not only entrepreneurial. With the money they earned, Thornton went back and rescued his mother from whom he had been sold at age three and brought her to Toronto and he and his wife built homes near Osgoode hall where many fugitive slaves came and found homes.
“The climax to it all was the foundation of the anti-slavery society of Canada and the impetus behind that was George Brown, the Father of Confederation and the founder of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. He was a strong supporter of the union effort right through the Civil War because of the issue of slavery and the Blackburn family knew him very well.”