Thornton Blackburn

Life in Detroit

Image 4.1 Detroit jail, 1881. (Silas Farmer, 1884, pg. 267).

Being Free is Not Enough

During the same year they arrived in Detroit, a friend of Thornton’s owner named Thomas J. Rogers, who was visiting the city, spotted the couple and recognized Thornton from his time in Kentucky (Smardz Frost, 2007;161). When he completed his travels two years later in 1833, Rogers reported the couple to the Kentucky state authorities, and bounty hunters were sent to bring them back to Louisville. According to Kentucky law, any white person aware of an escaped slave was required to report the escapee to state authorities (Smardz Frost, 2007;161). The bounty hunters did not succeed in capturing the couple, so a warrant was issued for Thornton and Ruthie’s arrest.

Blackburn Riots

In June 1833, Thornton and Ruthie were arrested and taken to the Detroit jail. Over four hundred people gathered to protest their arrest and possible re-enslavement (Smardz Frost, 2007; 179). The Blackburn Riots not only allowed the couple to regain their freedom, but also underlined growing racial tensions in the city. Although anecdotal accounts place white rioters at the scene, who were in favour of Thornton, only black rioters were arrested. These injustices further fueled racial inequality and animosity in Detroit (Smardz Frost, 2007; 177).

Ruthie found help from Mrs. George French when they swapped places in the jail, allowing her to escape. Thornton was later set free when protesters stormed the jail, and the couple was guided separately across the Detroit River fleeing to Upper Canada (McRae, 1983; 38).


Although no longer slaves, and despite the community’s support, the Blackburns chose to continue to move north, demonstrating that freedom was not enough. How do racial tensions rooted in slavery still lead to current day struggles being fought for by the Black Lives Matter movement, both in Canada and the United States?

People who tracked down escaped slaves for monetary gain.

The protests against the arrest of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn, which escalated into a two-day riot. This was Detroit’s first race riot and resulted in the United States’ first ever riot commission.

The province of Upper Canada was established in 1791 by the British government after the American Revolution. The area generally comprised of present day, southern Ontario.

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