A Toronto archaeologist says that the test case of two fugitive slaves who arrived in Ontario aboard the Underground Railroad helped to mold Canada’s current extradition legislation.
Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost spoke at Centennial College on Feb. 7 about research for her Governor General Award winning book, “I’ve Got A Home In Glory Land: A Lost Tale Of The Underground Railroad.”
Frost presented the heroic account of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who escaped slavery in Kentucky during the 19th century, via the Underground Railroad. Frost said the 20-year research effort uncovered extraordinary challenges they faced during their fight for freedom in Canada.
Throughout the lecture, Frost repeatedly pointed the historical connections that the couple had with Canada upon arrival in Toronto in 1834.
“Modern day extradition laws came from the Blackburn extradition case,” Frost said. “These new extradition laws made Canada a legally safe place for slaves to come.”
What this meant was that British law in Canada would protect any slaves who were successful in their escape to any British colony. Fugitive slaves would not be deported to the country for which they escaped and where the punishment would be more severe than British law.
Frost mentions in her book that the Chief Justice of Upper Canada, John Beverley Robinson, had been influential in the protection of fugitive slaves when Canada was pressured by the U.S. government to return slaves to American soil in the 18th
Protection of English law
Robinson’s inspiration came from British case law in 1772, which cited that, “every man who comes to England is entitled to the protection of the English law, whatever oppression he may heretofore have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin.”
That meant that every man who escaped to England would experience the same rights as any British citizen no matter how dire his circumstances prior to arrival.
Although Robinson was not in Upper Canada when the Blackburn’s escaped, his interpretation of English law was successfully applied.
Frost said she began her quest to learn more about the lives of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in 1985, when during an excavation activity with school children, she came across the traces of a house, a shed and a possible cellar.
She later learned that the original owner had been Thornton Blackburn. Municipal records of the owners of the land said that the original owner had the same name, a cabman (Thornton pioneered the present-day cab business) and was coloured.
Frost became emotional when she mentioned the pride she felt that the Blackburn’s had figuratively chosen her to tell their story. She also believes that she has created a template for the researching and recording of individual slave stories.
Throughout the month of February, Frost will help celebrate Black History Month by telling stories and signing books across Ontario.
For information about her book, “I’ve Got A Home In Glory Land: A Lost Tale Of The Underground Railroad,” and her presentations, visit: www.homeingloryland.com.