Black History Month: From Maysville To Toronto
Though Thorton and his wife, Lucie, escaped Kentucky slavery in 1831, it took them several years to make it as far as Canada. When they arrived it was 1834, the same year Toronto became a city (it had been called by its British colonial title, "York", before that year). Toronto at the time had a booming economy that was somewhat welcoming of blacks. It had, in general, a lower degree of antiblack prejudice. It wasn't free from racism - white and black societies lived in separate spheres - but in many ways it was a 19th century model of what would become commonplace decades later. In business and employment, and even in churches, blacks and whites intermingled.
In 1837, James G. Birney, a Kentucky slaveholder-turned abolitionist, visited Toronto. He wrote approvingly:
On Sunday I attended, in the morning, the "English Church" [Church of England]. I saw here several colored people sitting promiscuously with the whites. In the afternoon, I went to a Baptist Church, the pastor of which is Mr. Christian, a colored man, a native of Virginia and formerly a Slave. The Congregation, which was larger than the building could well accommodate, was composed of about an equal number of whites and colored persons. There was no distinction in seats, nor any, the least recognition, so far as I could discern, of a difference made by complexion or any other cause. There is a considerable number of the members of the Church that are whites. I never saw a better looking or more orderly Congregation assembled. In their persons they were neat – in their attention to the services decorous and exemplary.
There was also a strong abolitionist sentiment and slave catchers were despised. They rarely came to this city on the north shore of Lake Ontario because little assistance was given by Torontoians to American slave owners hoping to kidnap runaway slaves.
Finding a prosperous new life in Toronto, Thorton Blackburn began the first taxi business in Upper Canada in 1837, with his brother Alfred, who had escaped slavery in Mason County, Kentucky years before. Amazingly, Thorton and Alfred found each other in Toronto despite not knowing the other would be there.