Thornton Blackburn

A Taste of Freedom: Life and Love in Louisville

Image 2.1 Louisville Main Street, 1842.  National Archives, National Archives Identifier 513346.

New People, New Places

In the spring of 1829, Thornton’s owner, Gideon Brown, died. Thornton, now 17, was hired out as a porter to a dry goods company in Louisville. His wages would help support Brown’s widow and her children. For Thornton, this was an opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills and live more independently (Smardz Frost, 2007; 76-79).

Although hiring out was a common practice, many slaveholders feared it gave too much autonomy and a chance for slaves to escape, since they were away from their owner’s direct control (Smardz Frost, 2007; 76-78, 82). Enslaved Black people, as well as those who were born free or bought their freedom, intermingled at church and in the streets of Louisville (Smardz Frost, 2007; 89). In 1830, out of the city’s 10,000 people, 2,600 were Black, 232 of whom were free (Hudson 2011; 278-79). Many free Black people owned small businesses and Thornton saw what he could achieve given freedom and opportunity. Close ties and collective identity formed between free and enslaved Black individuals out of shared experiences of oppression–connections that spread to other cities and states (Smardz Frost, 2007; 89-92).

Image 2.2 Steamboats at Louisville. Harper’s Weekly, 1862.

Love and Escape

In Louisville Thornton met Ruthie, an enslaved Black woman who worked as a caregiver. The two married in 1831 with their owners’ permission (Smardz Frost, 2007; 94, 99-100). Most slaves married and could choose their partners to a certain degree, although their spouse could be sold at any time. Since couples from different owners, like Thornton and Ruthie, often lived apart it also gave them the autonomy to travel with a day pass to see their spouse (Pargas, 2008; 320-322).

Thornton and Ruthie’s stability was cut short when Ruthie’s owners died. She was auctioned to the highest bidder, who was known to sell slaves to New Orleans where young women were often sold into prostitution (Smardz Frost, 2007; 7, 108-109). Two weeks after Ruthie was sold, the couple escaped across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana using forged day passes (Smardz Frost, 2007; 9).


How would encounters with free Black individuals have influenced Thornton’s hopes for his future?

The practice where owners “rented” their slaves to other individuals. The slave’s earned wages would be paid to their owner.

A document which gave slaves permission to be away from their owners for a day.

A state where slavery was prohibited or being legally phased out.

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 Part 5

 Part 6