Building Community: Paying It Forward
Image 7.1 St. Lawrence Hall, site of the North American Convention of Colored Freemen. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
The Black population in Toronto saw major growth during the Blackburns’ lifetime. More than fifty Black families lived in the city by the year 1837, and the community was made up of both fugitive slaves and free men and women (Smardz Frost, 2007; 269). With the capital earned from Thorntons’ cab business, the couple invested in properties in St. John’s Ward.
Image 7.2 Agnes Street in St. John’s Ward, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 291.
In 1838, Thornton acquired a property lot, which adjoined his friend’s Agnes Street property. In the next few years the Blackburns bought five more properties, four in the same district and one to the northeast of their home on Sackville Street. Not only did these properties serve as investments, but they also allowed the couple to help other newly arrived Black families by offering them cheap rent (Smardz Frost, 2007; 269-271).
Thornton remained active in the community through church attendance and participation at the North American Convention of Colored Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall. Although Toronto was more accepting and less segregated than the rest of Ontario, the Blackburns were still denied naturalization due to racially biased legal discrimination in Upper Canada (Smardz Frost, 2007; 272-273).
Risking Freedom for Family
Thornton was reunited with his brother Alfred, who was working as a carpenter in Toronto. He had not seen Alfred since 1825 (Smardz Frost, 2007; 256). As a result of Thornton’s financial success, Thornton was able to fund a return trip to Kentucky to bring his mother to safety in Canada, although the details of the journey are unknown. Risking re-enslavement yet again, Thornton made the choice to reunite his family, a choice that had been denied to him as a slave.
The trip was 1,600 kilometres and Thornton had not seen Sibby Blackburn for 12 years (Smardz Frost, 2007; 277). Census records in 1851 reveal Thornton’s household was made up of himself, Lucie, his brother Alfred, and his elderly mother (Smardz Frost, 2007; 278). For the first time, the family was able to live together in safety and freedom.
What about Thornton’s life experience motivated him to invest his fortune and risk his freedom to help others both in his family and beyond?