An excerpt from
Black Detroit —A People's Struggle for Self-Determination

By Herb Boyd

Amistad | 2017

Chapter 2—The Blackburn Affair

Detroit in 1830 was a city in flux, primarily troubled by a wave of recent arrivals from the South, “blues people” seeking freedom from bondage. But, in many respects, the refuge they sought only turned out to be relatively better than what they left. The slave chasers and the bounty hunters were never more than a tap on the shoulder away. The black community, comprised of indigenous blacks and fugitive slaves, was just beginning to take shape and represented such a small percentage of the city’s total population on the streets that they were easy prey, with or without “free papers.”

The remarkable story of Thornton and Lucie (Rutha) Blackburn resonates between two historical markers—one in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, from which they escaped and the other in Toronto, Canada, their final destination. Each marker bears witness to their miraculous flight from slavery—without the help of the Underground Railroad and its conductors—and their eventual migration to Canada, they briefly resided in Detroit.

Exhausted from a harrowing four-day trip by boat and stagecoach from Louisville, the couple was invited to the home of James Slaughter, a local black businessman. It was a warm summer night when they arrived in Detroit on July 6, 1831.

Their dream of freedom at last was a reality. No more auction blocks, no more threats of being sold from one owner to the next, or being sold “down the river” like so many other slaves in Kentucky. Now the young mulatto couple—Thornton, 19, and Ruthie or Lucie, as she was later called, a few years older—could exhale and work on making their new marriage something in total defiance to a system determined to dehumanize them. They refused to have their love denied, and their lives relegated to lifelong bondage.

At the time of their escape Lucie had already been sold for $300 and was to be sent down the river for sale in New Orleans or Natchez where her fair skin made her much more valuable than she would be in Louisville. Thornton knew time was not on their side, and with the nation in the midst of July 4th celebrations perhaps among the celebrants they could move less conspicuously toward freedom. Traveling as a couple presented an additional challenge. 

There were hordes of bounty hunters who were ever watchful; they lurked in the shadows of docks, around train stations and other points of entry and departure, ready to grab an unsuspecting fugitive slave in order to earn the reward. A $25 bounty was set for the capture and return of Thornton to his master; it was a price far less than the $400 he could command on the auction block. 

Settling into Detroit’s black community was easy for the Blackburns. At the time, in Detroit, there were traces of the Underground Railroad and some discussion here and there about anti-slavery activities. It seemed familiar to them and especially in the waterfront setting which was much like the one they knew in Louisville. The black population was smaller but no less energetic, hardworking and enterprising. It was only a matter of days before Thornton found a job as a stonemason.  

“The Blackburns had settled in Detroit in hope that their troubles were behind them, but two disturbing events had occurred within their first two months in the city,” Karolyn Smardz Frost wrote in I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land. “First came the news that a bloody slave uprising had been launched in Southampton County, Virginia. Originally planned for the same weekend as Thornton and Lucie’s flight from Louisville, it had been delayed until August 22 because of the illness on the part of the riot’s organizer.  This was an educated and deeply religious slave named Nat Turner, a visionary with a gift for oratory.”1

In the same way that people learned of David Walker’s Appeal, a Christian manifesto to end slavery that was widely circulated in 1829, they received the news of Turner’s revolt. From city to city, even in the North, the racial tension was palpable.  Turner was like an avenging angel as he left family after family in a stream of carnage.  When he and his “army” were finished the massacre of 59 whites sent a chilling effect across the nation. “Prophet Nat,” as Turner was called, was pursued relentlessly by the law and outlaws. When they finally caught him he was hanged, decapitated, and his head posted near the uprising as a warning to others who considered violence as a form of liberation.  

“The second incident had very serious personal implications for the Blackburns, although they would not realize it for some time.”2   Practically one year after their arrival in the city, as Thornton was walking through town he bumped into a white man he knew from Louisville.   They exchanged a few words and Thornton left the acquaintance with the impression that he was now a free man. 

On June 14, 1833, Sheriff John Wilson appeared at the Blackburns’ home with an order to arrest them as fugitive slaves.   He and his deputy, Lemuel Goodell were to receive $50 each after the trial, which was a legal requirement under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  The Blackburns were to be delivered to the dock at the foot of Randolph Street, then the primary business point in the city.3  It took some legal maneuvering to bring them both before the judge. They were shocked to learn that James Slaughter, the man who befriended them and with whom they lived upon arriving in Detroit testified against them in court, recounting what they told him about their means of escape.  Despite being a man of dubious reputation—it was said that he ran a bordello—his testimony was damning.  Word of the trial spread fast among the city’s fugitive slaves. The trial would be a test case on actually how free African Americans were in the territory.4

A supportive black community filled the courtroom.5  Key to the case was the extent to which the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 would be applied.  If the defenders could present their papers of manumission, then they were beyond the reach of the law.  But no such papers were offered in evidence by the Blackburns, perhaps their knowledge that they were forgeries would doom them to even graver charges.6      

A group of outraged black citizens was no longer content to sit passively by and allow the wheels of justice to creak along.   There were whispers of torching the city. “They met at the home of Benjamin Willoughby, a real estate speculator, financier and owner of a lumber business, who came to Detroit from Kentucky sometime between 1817 and 1830,“ journalist and author Betty DeRamus wrote.  “He had worked as a laborer and acquired some money, often lending it to others.  At his home, participants hatched a plot to free the Blackburns; the plan put Willoughby’s own property and even his life at risk.”7 

The plan was part charade and deception.  Once Sheriff Wilson allowed Mrs. Blackburn to receive visitors, Mrs. Caroline French and Mrs. Tabitha Lightfoot were chosen to enter her jail cell.  While they chatted, Mrs. French changed clothes with Lucie.   As Mrs. Lightfoot and Lucie left the jail under cover of night, they faked convulsive weeping, covering their faces.  By the time the sheriff caught wind of the ruse, Lucie was across the river in Canada.8   Changing places, however, left Mrs. French in the clutches of the law and she faced the prospect of taking Lucie’s place permanently.  Fortunately, her father, Cornelius Leonard Lenox, a man of considerable wealth and clout, interceded and was able to get her released on a writ of habeas corpus.  While out on bail, she fled to Canada where she spent several months.9   She would ultimately return to the city and resume living with her family.  Meanwhile, with Lucie safe, her husband became the center of attention and retribution.

While Sheriff Wilson and the jailer transported Thornton from jail to a waiting steamer they were attacked and their prisoner escaped.  Apparently, the sheriff was intimidated by the crowd of angry black citizens who had gathered outside the jail when they discovered Thornton was being returned to Louisville.10   

To placate the enraged citizenry, “Blackburn requested that he speak to the crowd in order to allay their fears and to appease their anger.  As the people crowded in to hear Blackburn, someone slipped him a pistol which he brandished and ran into a coach where he locked himself in, and promised to kill whoever attempted to recapture him.”11   

The melee was just the thing needed to allow Thornton, with the assistance of several black Detroiters, to slip from the coach and flee to a boat that took him to Canada.  During the altercation Sheriff Wilson was hit in the head with a blunt object, knocking his teeth out and fracturing his skull.  He died a year later.  There was one other fatality. Lewis Austin was shot in the lung and died two years later from the wound. Reunited with his wife, Thornton decided that living across the river from Detroit was not far enough from the greedy slave catchers. The couple continued their flight further from Detroit.  

In the wake of their capture, a festering anger grew to a full-scale riot. On July 11, 1833 the jail was set on fire and a few days later the stables abutting the jail went up in flames killing a number of horses.12   Blacks were accused of setting this fire but there was no evidence they were involved. The situation had escalated to the point that two weeks later Mayor Marshall Chapin sent an urgent letter to Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, requesting troops to stabilize the city.  “The recent excesses committed in this city by the black population within its limits, and particularly the repeated attempts to fire the town,” Chapin wrote, “have so far excited the apprehensions of our citizens for their property and lives. That I am instructed by the common council…to ask that a detachment of the United States troops may be stationed at this place, to act under the directions of the municipal authority until the excitement has subsided and tranquility is retored.”13

Cass, a former governor of the Michigan Territory, was no stranger to the region or to slavery since he was a former slaveholder.  He acceded to the mayor’s wishes and martial law was declared.  Given the heavy deployment of U.S. troops and a complement of local militia the riot was subdued and a sizable contingent of blacks had bolted to Canada, leaving only about fifty or so to withstand the harsh indictments. Most burdensome was the posting of a $500 bond in order to remain in the city.  Not since the British replaced the French as a dominant force in the city had there been such a dramatic change in the black population.14 

According to historian David S. Reynolds, “Canada had abolished slavery but it did not have a firm policy on fugitive slaves.  Imprisoned again, the Blackburns faced the bleak prospect of a forced return to the United States. In a landmark trial, however, a Canadian court ruled that they had committed no capital crime and could not be extradited to America. Canada was thereafter regarded as a protective home for fugitive blacks who wanted to live without fear of being recaptured and sent south.”

The effects of the riot of 1833 lingered for nearly four years.  It had created an immutable chasm between black and white Detroiters.  This tension was in part responsible for the flight of many African Americans to Canada and other parts of the country.  When Michigan gained statehood in 1837, there were only eleven blacks listed in the city’s directory, the same number that arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626.15   But, as with most enumerations of blacks, this one was by no means accurate since it included only the most endowed citizens, not the majority of whom worked on the docks, cleaned the streets, or were otherwise menially employed.   In fact, the census of 1840 counted nearly 200 African-American residents.  Whatever the number, they were resourceful and resilient, in withstanding both the blatant and salient hostility of the white community.  

Among these stalwarts were Madison Lightfoot and his wife, both of whom were pivotally involved in the Blackburns’ escape; Benjamin Willoughby; Robert Banks, who owned a haberdashery that sold used clothes; Peter Copper, a teamster who operated his own cab service; and one woman proprietor, Ann Butler, a laundress and possibly the widow of William Butler, a barber and activist.16  The Butlers’ free-born son who accompanied the Blackburns to Canada was threatened with extradition along with the others.17  By 1846, they were joined by such notables as Henry Bibb, the publisher whose slave narrative is among the most anthologized in the African American literary canon; abolitionist the Reverend William C. Monroe;  William Lambert and George DeBaptiste. These citizens were charter members of the burgeoning anti-slavery society that in 1837 had been forged by Shubael Conant, a white silversmith and watchmaker.18   This organization had continued the anti-slavery activity that began in 1832 by a group of Quakers led by Elizabeth Margaret Chandler in the Raisin River Valley in Adrian, Michigan.

At the top of their agenda was the boycott of any product produced by slave labor, particularly cotton.   Historian Silas Farmer claimed that by 1836 “all the slaves were either dead or manumitted,” so any need for a movement against slavery was ostensibly forged to protect those recently in flight from bondage.19

On October 24, 1839 a fugitive slave was abducted and claimed by bounty hunters from Missouri.  Upon hearing about the capture, the black and white abolitionists quickly assembled outside City Hall to prevent the U.S. Marshal from delivering the man from the courthouse to the jail.  Sensing an attack from the agitated abolitionists, the marshal called on the troops stationed nearby and they were able to halt the demonstration.  They apprehended one white and three blacks, placing them in a cell with the slave. After some pressure from the black community, the protesters and the slave were released and the runaways’ freedom “was purchased from his owner by citizens of Detroit who contributed the amount placed upon him by his owner.”20

Although slavery was outlawed in the state, there was more than one instance in which slave catchers and bounty hunters ignored the law.  There were also too many cases when the government had to be pressured to enforce measures that had been in place, more or less, since the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787.   In addition, the Detroit Free Press, the city’s first daily, along with headlines about the cholera epidemic and the financial panic of 1837, ran a rash of ads asking rewards for fugitive slaves.  These factors were instrumental in the forging of a great abolitionist movement.

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