Digging up the Railroad

By Bill Castanier

Authors discovery leads her on 20-year journey

When Canadian archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost set out to do a public dig with more than 3,000 schoolchildren in Toronto in 1985, she looked for a site that would help uncover the “heritage of average people.” “I’ve never been interested in the rich and famous,” she said during a recent interview.

She would rediscover the lives of two above-average people who were richly famous in the history of the Underground Railroad.

During her search, Frost went through public records with the intent of finding school property that might have something hidden beneath it. “When governments are looking for building sites, they tear down poor people’s property,” she explained.

By finding the oldest property the school district still owned, she discovered a location that at one time was the home of a “Thornton Blackburn, cabman, colored.” That piqued her interest.

“I tripped over it, and it changed my life,” she said.

What she and her team of amateur child archaeologists discovered was the remains of a 12-by-24 foot shotgun house that was the home of Thornton and Ruth “Lucie” Blackburn, escaped slaves from the United States who established the first cab business in Toronto in the mid 1800s. “We actually don’t know how many slaves made their way to Canada (Frost said estimates place the number at 35,000), but there are only 600 documented sites. This was the first documented site to be excavated in Canada,” she said.

After discovering the significance of the site and its owners, Frost went back to college to get a Ph.D. specializing in race and slavery. She spent the next 20-plus years writing a book about the Blackburns, which won Canada’s highest literary award for non-fiction in 2007.

Frost’s book, “I’ve Got A Home In Glory Land,” details the Blackburns’ journey and dramatic escape. When the couple learned they were to be sold and separated in Kentucky, they fled to Michigan, only to be captured in Detroit under the Fugitive Slave Act.

While in a Detroit jail awaiting their extradition to Kentucky, the Blackburns were forcefully freed and spirited away to Canada in what is now known as the Blackburn Riots of 1833. The Canadian government’s refusal to return the Blackburns to the United States ultimately created a safe haven for runaway slaves in Canada: the “Underground Railroad” was off and running.

Frost said the site caught the public’s imagination and attracted international media attention, in addition to 10,000 visitors to the actual dig. “I fell in love with the Blackburns,” she said.

That love affair took her to 13 states to help piece together the significance of the Blackburns’ actions. In her quest for information, the archaeologist became a “history detective,” piecing together the Blackburns’ journey from public records. Frost was 27 at the time of the dig and the investigation, and she said her youth allowed her to stumble forward. “I didn’t know what you couldn’t do,” she said.

One thing she was able to do is establish the Blackburn’s Toronto home as a significant site on the Underground Railroad, which it was formally recognized as in 2002. Another site in Kentucky has been recognized as where their journey began. Frost calls it, “The only “binational plaqueing” on the Underground Railroad. She and some supporters would like to add one more plaque to the set: the site of the jail in Detroit where the Blackburns were incarcerated and freed. Frost said a Detroit Public Library is on the site today.

Frost will share her and the Blackburn’s story Sunday at the Michigan Library and Historical Center in a program sponsored by The Michigan Freedom Trail Commission. In addition to the presentation there will be a display of documents from the Blackburn case, including custo- dial affidavits from Kentucky, warrants in Wayne County for the couple’s arrest and documents explaining Canada’s refusal to support extradition.

Frost said she is careful in her book to “appropriate the voice” of the Blackburns, but she is clear in her introduction to say she believes, “The Underground Railroad came about because angry men and strong defiant women, like Thornton and Lucie, rejected what it meant to be born black in the antebellum United States.”

Karolyn Smardz Frost

Author of "Ive Got A Home in Glory Land" 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 Michigan Library and Hstorical Center Forum, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing www.michigan.gov/hal