IMMORTALIZED IN PAINT
Couple who fled slavery and became community leaders honoured by George Brown College,
Nearly 200 years ago, shortly after fleeing slavery in the United States using the Underground Railroad, Lucie and Thornton Blackburn became leaders in their newly adopted community in Toronto.
They helped construct the historic Little Trinity Anglican Church on King St. and Thornton established Toronto’s first cab company — a redand-yellow horse-drawn carriage that seated four.
On Tuesday, George Brown College will honour the legacy of the Blackburns, naming a conference centre at their student residence, The George, after the courageous couple and unveiling a mural designed and painted by George Brown students.
“This goes beyond the incredible story of a couple fleeing slavery to seek freedom in Canada, building incredible community partnerships and opening up the doors to blacks in Toronto,” said Nikki Clarke, the president of the Ontario Black History Society.
“Their story runs parallel to many people’s stories: taking refuge, seeking safety and trying to start over in a new country. It resonates with many.”
The Blackburns escaped their Kentucky slave owners in broad daylight in 1831 and began a new life in Detroit. But two years later, they were spotted by an acquaintance from Kentucky and the couple was taken to court and thrown in jail. With the help of the local abolitionist movement, the Blackburns again escaped, this time to Canada.
Despite demands for extradition from the governor of Michigan, the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada at the time refused to return them, and the Blackburns settled in Toronto in 1834. The Blackburns were highly respected as both activists and business people in Toronto. Thornton established the first cab company in Upper Canada, a single-horse carriage painted red-and-yellow called “The City.”
Karolyn Smardz Frost wrote a book about the couple after a public archeological dig uncovered the remains of the Blackburn home in 1985.
“Their achievement is remarkable and an example for all of us,” Smardz Frost said.
“They built the fabric and infra- structure of our country and we stand on their shoulders.”
Adrienne Galway, special adviser to George Brown’s president Ann Sado and chair of the Blackburn Conference Centre Committee, said naming the building after the couple was an obvious choice for many reasons.
The location of the Blackburns’ former home is just steps away from the downtown campus, not to mention George Brown and the Blackburns worked together on the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.
Today, the Blackburns are buried beside George Brown at the Necropolis Cemetery.
“That diversity is what we like to represent as a downtown Toronto college,” Galway said.
“It’s a great fit, especially given that the conference centre is going to be the spot where people will be coming to exchange ideas.”
There will be a private unveiling of the conference centre on Tuesday, and open house for the public on Thursday from noon to 8 p.m.
Project leader Graeme Kondruss and mural artists Jamie (Jung Yoon) Choi put the finishing touches on the Blackburn Mural.
Dr. Magdalena Sabat, reseach and creative adviser, works on the mural, which is dedicated to the pioneers who fled slavery in the 1830s.
Mural artist Huda Tariq looks over plans for the mural. George Brown named a conference centre at their residence after the Blackburns.