Karolyn Smardz Frost (2007) documents the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn who “stole themselves” from slavery
Among other topics of interest the book by Frost refers to the historic significance of the year 1793. I have an interest in this date because it marks the year when Colonel Samuel Smith received a huge grant of land in southwestern Etobicoke.
Frost speaks of three important events in 1793 of relevance to her narrative of the escape from slavery of Thornton Blackburn and his wife Lucie Blackburn. The first was the passage in that year of the Fugitive Slave Act, which enabled American slaveholders to seek out runaway slaves anywhere in the United States and its territories. The second was the invention of the cotton gin, a machine that transformed cotton into the staple agricultural product of the American South, which in turn increased the market value of slaves forced to labour in Southern cotton fields.
Also in 1793, John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, prohibited the importation of slaves to this British province. Upper Canada thus became the first of England’s colonies to rule against slavery, some forty years before the rest of the British empire.
There are many ways to position the Thornton and Lucie Blackburn story in our minds. Here is part of Frost’s narrative that stays in mind for me. Thornton Blackburn was an enterprising man, and his wife Lucie Blackburn was an excellent money manager. Together they hit upon an idea, within two years of their arrival in Toronto as runaway slaves from Kentucky, “that would make their fortunes and ensure them a permanent place in the city’s history. In 1837, they began the first taxi business in Upper Canada” (p. 267).
Patterned after a horse-drawn cab in Montreal, Thornton’s cab had room for four passengers, who entered from the rear, with the luggage strapped on top. Thornton rode up top. The carriage was painted in the Blackburn cab company’s own colours of red and yellow. “The Toronto Transit Company,’ Frost notes, “uses the Blackburn logo colors of red and yellow for its streetcars and buses to this day” (p. 268).
The year 1793 is also the first year that the U.S. made its own coins. According to an Associated Press report dated January 7, 2012, the first coin was known as a `Chain Cent’ because the central design on the back is a chain of 13 linking rings representing the 13 original colonies. Some critics claimed the chain was symbolic of slavery; the design was subsequently changed from rings to a wreath.
A Feb. 11, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Eric Foner Wins Historical Society Book Prize.”
The opening paragraphs read:
Eric Foner, the much-decorated Columbia University historian, will take on the title American Historian Laureate in April when the New-York Historical Society presents him with its annual American History Book Prize for “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”
The book, published by W.W. Norton, reconstructs the clandestine efforts by black and white abolitionists to help fugitive slaves passing through New York, a city with deep connections to the Southern cotton trade and the textile industry. The book also takes a broader view, exploring how these slaves and their allies in the Underground Railroad, while small in number, powerfully shaped national politics, playing a major role in sectional conflict and the coming of the Civil War.
“Eric Foner’s riveting, inspiring story of fugitive slaves and the individuals who helped them to reach freedom contributes to our understanding of the history of Amercian slavery,” Louise Mirrer, the society’s president and chief executive said in a statement. The book’s emphasis on New York and the North as centers both of abolitionist activity and pro-slavery sympathies, she added, also “echoes our institution’s rich museum and library collections and programming,” including its major 2005 exhibition “Slavery in New York.”
[End of excerpt]
A Best of 2016 Longreads excerpt from is entitled: “Slavery and Freedom in New York City: The story of slavery in New York, the messy path to abolition, and a shameful history with which America has yet to come to terms.”
The opening paragraphs read:
The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves.
Under British rule, the city, now called New York, became an important trading center in a slave-based New World empire. In the eighteenth century, the British replaced the Dutch as the world’s leading slave traders, and the city’s unfree population steadily expanded. New York merchants became actively involved in the transatlantic slave trade as well as commerce with the plantations of the Caribbean. Slave auctions took place regularly at a market on Wall Street. Between 1700 and 1774, over 7,000 slaves were imported into New York, most of them destined for sale to surrounding rural areas. This figure was dwarfed by the more than 200,000 brought into the southern colonies in these years. But in 1734, New York’s colonial governor lamented that the ‘too great importation of . . . Negroes and convicts” had discouraged the immigration of ‘honest, useful and laborious white people,’ who preferred to settle in neighboring colonies like Pennsylvania. By mid-century, slaves represented over one-fifth of the city’s population of around 12,000. Ownership of slaves was widespread. Most worked as domestic laborers, on the docks, in artisan shops, or on small farms in the city’s rural hinterland. In modern-day Brooklyn, then a collection of farms and small villages, one-third of the population in 1771 consisted of slaves.”
An Aug. 14, 2019n Guardian article is entitled: “Point Comfort: where slavery in America began 400 years ago.”