I've Got a Home in Glory Land A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad

Karolyn Smardz Frost

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

480 Pages


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Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction No one will ever know how many runaway slaves traveled the routes of the Underground Railroad. Only a handful of those who escaped ever revealed its secrets. I've Got a Home in Glory Land chronicles an unknown story of this clandestine and illegal system, the most important social justice movement of nineteenth-century America. In 1831, a black man could be a slave when standing on the south bank and a free man on the north. On the day before Independence Day of that year, Thornton Blackburn waited wharfside in Louisville, Kentucky, with his bride, Lucie, who was about to be sold "down the river" to the brutal and sexually exploitative slave markets of the Deep South. This would essentially guarantee that husband and wife would never meet again. But Thornton and Lucie, clad in their finest holiday-making clothes, had devised a brilliantly audacious escape in broad daylight. Pursued to Michigan, the couple was captured and sentenced to return to Kentucky in chains, but Detroit's black community rallied to their cause. The resultant Blackburn Riots of 1833 were the first racial uprising in the city's history. Thornton and Lucie were spirited across the river to Canada by sympathetic freedmen, but Michigan's governor demanded their extradition, and their masters, eager to make an example of them, were willing to spend far more than the former slaves' market value to return them to servitude. Canada's defense of the Blackburns set the tone for all future diplomatic relations with the United States over the thorny issue of the fugitive slave. The Blackburns settled in Toronto, but they never forgot those for whom emancipation was a distant and uncertain dream. Working with prominent abolitionists, Thornton and Lucie made their home a haven for runaways. Thornton would endanger his freedom one last time when he secretly returned to the United States to bring his mother—whom he had not seen in more than a dozen years—to liberty. When the Blackburns passed away in the 1890s, they left no family to preserve their legacy. It was not until their small house, filled with artifacts that speak eloquently of their daily lives, was excavated that the truth of Thornton and Lucie's heroism was rediscovered. I've Got a Home in Glory Land is the result of decades of research by the author, who supervised the dig of the Blackburn site.


Praise for I've Got a Home in Glory Land

“Thorton Blackburn is hardly a household name, but he was an important figure in the history of American slavery. In I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land, the historian and archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost rescues him from obscurity and shows how he helped make Canada a safe haven for fugitive slaves . . . The result of her unflagging detective work is this absorbing book . . . Frost shows too the inspiring solidarity among antislavery forces that led to the Blackburns’ freedom. Especially moving is her account of their escape from jail . . . I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land is as authentically historical as it could be, given the scanty evidence Frost is working with. The book can be enjoyed as a historical biography plausibly embellished for readability. Around 35,000 escapees from slavery settled in Canada before the Civil War. As Karolyn Frost persuasively shows, many of them owed their newfound security to Ruthie and Thorton Blackburn, a pioneering couple most of them had never heard of.”—David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

"In I've Got a Home in Glory Land, the Blackburns' improbable journey from bondage to freedom pulsates with the breath-catching urgency of a thriller, yet this remarkable story is true. An archeologist and historian, Frost led a team that, more than two decades ago, unearthed the remnants of a residence and cellar in downtown Toronto. Official records later revealed the land belonged to 'Thornton Blackburn, cabman, colored,' who, with his wife, escaped slavery, went into business, and founded that Canadian city's first cab company . . . Exhaustively researched and poignantly told, I've Got a Home in Glory Land is an invaluable testament to resistance, resilience, and a once-denied but unalienable right to life and liberty."—Renée Graham, The Boston Globe

"Frost, the executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, meticulously reconstructs the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackwell, an enslaved couple who escaped from Kentucky in 1831. Lucie's owner had recently died, and the couple apparently feared that she would be 'sold down the river' to feed the voracious demand for slave labor in the lower Mississippi Valley. Armed with forged freedom papers—how the pair, who were both illiterate, came by the papers is unclear—they took a ferry across the Ohio River to Indiana, boarded a Cincinnati-bound steamship and proceeded by stagecoach to Detroit, where they settled. The Blackwells might have passed their lives in anonymity but for a chance encounter with an old acquaintance from Kentucky, who alerted their erstwhile owners to their whereabouts. The owners successfully appealed to have them arrested and returned to Kentucky, in conformity with federal law. But no one had reckoned on the determination of the local black community, which sprung Lucie from jail and rescued Thornton by force of arms. Spirited away to Canada, the pair became the subject of a diplomatic imbroglio between the United States and Canada, which ended with the Canadian government declaring itself unwilling to extradite fugitives unless they were guilty of a capital crime."—James T. Campbell, The Washington Post Book World

“More than 20 years ago, archeologists in downtown Toronto discovered traces of a house, a shed and a cellar beneath a school playground. Few cities would consider devoting scarce resources to recovering what author Karolyn Smardz Frost calls ‘fragments of pottery and bits of broken glass’ from a modest, mid-19th century home . . . The clues offered up by the ground would, in time, assist Frost, head of the dig, in her remarkable excavation of the Blackburn’s lives . . . Frost’s book is a meticulously, even zealously, researched work that tells the story of the Blackburns, who freed themselves from slavery in Kentucky in July 1833 and settled in Canada . . . Drawing on a wide variety of sources, Frost presents a detailed picture of black life in antebellum Detroit and in Canada while at the same time explaining the importance of the intersection of their lives with Britain’s two former North American colonies . . . I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land reminds readers interested in slave resistance that what deserves excavation are the lives of those courageous few who chanced freedom and gained it rather than the supposed sites of a phantasmagoric Underground Railroad.”—Jane Dailey, Chicago Tribune

"I've Got a Home in Glory Land traces the improbable journey of two forgotten runaway slaves, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, from their home in Kentucky, along the Underground Railroad routes to Michigan Territory, all the way to Canada. Their fascinating story probably would have remained unknown except for Karolyn Frost's tireless efforts to reconstruct their history. Like the majority of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum era, Thornton and Ruthie (later Lucie) Blackburn were illiterate. They remained so all of their lives, even after their escape to Canada; thus they left few written records. However, their remarkable story was unearthed in a schoolyard in 1985 when a team of archaeologists in Toronto, Canada, stumbled on the remnants of a house, barn, and cellar that they subsequently learned belonged to the Blackburns. Frost's impressive research and assiduous detective work over the last 20 years resurrects what otherwise would have been lost to history. Using contemporary documents and narratives, Frost tells a tale of desperation and courage. This excellent book paints a vivid picture of the world of slavery and freedom at each stage of the Blackburns' lives . . . I've Got a Home in Glory Land chronicles the lives of enslaved and free African Americans in the United States and Canada. In this painstakingly researched biography, Frost paints a devastating portrait of the abuses that enslaved and fugitive African Americans endured in the antebellum period, as well as the struggled of freed people afterward. Frost's extensive bibliography includes land, court, marriage, birth, and death records; maps, genealogical compilations, architectural pamphlets, historical newsletters, and archival guides; local, state, and regional histories; autobiographies and biographies of the participants in this story; information from repositories and historical societies in Canada and the United States; and slave narratives. Frost traveled throughout the United States and Canada to research every location where the Blackburns lives or worked. I've Got a Home in Glory Land is thoroughly researched, meticulously documented, compellingly argued, and beautifully written. The book is a major contribution to African American history in the United States and Canada, the study of slavery, and local, regional, and transnational history."—Sylvia M. Jacobs, North Carolina Central University, The Journal of African American History

“A Toronto author has written the first detailed account of Detroit’s first riot, an 1833 incident in which members of the small African-American community—aided by a number of sympathetic whites—rose up and freed two runaway slaves from the city jail. Karolyn Smardz Frost is an archeologist and historians whose I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the prestigious New York publishing house. Her book tells the remarkable tale of Thornton Blackburn and his wife Lucie, whose daring escape from their Louisville masters led them to Detroit, then to Toronto, where they became well known and prosperous . . . Frost’s deeply researched work is by far the most interesting, detailed and thorough account available. It is also a riveting look at antebellum America, including the culture of slaves and slave owners in the south and the Underground Railway in the north. Her portrait of pre-statehood Detroit is vivid and thorough . . . Frost notes that the Blackburns are honored in both Canada and Kentucky for their historical significance and contributions to society. If enough Detroiters read her excellent book, they might start to wonder if the Blackburns’ lives might be better commemorated in the city where they—and their supporters—made history.”—Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press

"Karolyn Smardz Frost's superb research has produced a wonderful account of the underground railroad, elevating Thornton and Lucy Blackburn to their rightful place in the dramatic story of pre-Civil War slave resistance, abolition, and African American life on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. This finely detailed account depicts a truly international antislavery movement."—James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, coauthors of Slavery and the Making of America and Hard Road to Freedom

"A deep-digging work of rich historical recovery, I've Got a Home in Glory Land is really two books: a biography of two famous runaways and a sifting of the rock-filled times in which they lived."—Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family and Peninsula of Lies

“Furthering the Canadian connection and extending her internationally recognized work in public archaeology and history, Frost unearths fascinating aspects of the underground’s international dimensions . . . Rich details of determination, hope, and life run through [this book], bringing to life personalities and places in the too often hidden or ignored history in the fight for basic human rights in antebellum America.”—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

"To retrace the journey of a runaway slave from the Ohio River Valley all the way to Canada is an immense challenge and a rare accomplishment. In her well-researched and well-written book, Karolyn Smardz Frost has done just that—and more. Bravo for Frost who has saved a remarkable story from the fate of other important histories that have been lost. Only by piecing together such stories and revealing the bold choices runaway slaves were forced to make, the dangers they faced, and the courage required to forge ahead, can we ever fully grasp how difficult it was for a slave in antebellum America to achieve freedom and just how desperate people can be to get free."—Ann Hagedorn, author of Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad

"An excellent and absorbing 'American and Canadian story' of an inaugural passage aboard the Underground Railroad. Canadian archaeologist Frost has spent months and traveled thousands of miles along back roads to trace the lives of runaway slaves, a search that she affectingly describes in the early pages of her book, helped along by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike, guarded by a 'chivalrous hitchhiker' as she combed through a forgotten graveyard beside a freeway off ramp, threatened by devotees of the Old South. The fruits of that hard work are evident in this book, which reconstructs the lives and circumstances of a light-skinned young man named Thornton Blackburn and his wife, Lucie, who, the day before Independence Day 1833, presented forged documents allowing them passage from slaveholding Kentucky into free Indiana and steamed away on a paddle-wheeler from Louisville, never to return. They eventually made their way to Toronto, where the ambitious and intelligent couple became middle-class householders, he a cab driver, she a moneylender. Theirs was a daring escape, to be sure, but Frost puts it in a larger context of resistance in many ways; by her account, slave resistance to the point of insurrection and guerrilla warfare was common, so much so that 'wise slaveholders turned a blind eye to minor infractions' in order to quiet discontent. Having wrested some freedom of movement, slaves in cities along the Ohio River came into contact with free blacks, some of whom formed part of the network of abolitionists who served the underground movement to help runaway slaves reach freedom. Frost is adamant, however, that the heroes here are Thornton and Lucie, whose deed was forgotten but who 'changed the very world in which they lived.' A most worthy addition to the literature surrounding American slavery."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this richly detailed book, [Smardz Frost] recounts the perilous journey of the couple from Louisville, Kentucky, to prevent threat to their marriage by the imminent sale of Lucie . . . Smardz Frost's fascination with her subject and love of detailed historical documentation are evident in this engrossing look at a couple who defied slavery with their escape and their assistance to other fugitive slaves."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist (starred review)

"Rich details of determination, hope, and life run through [I've Got A Home in Glory Land], bringing to life personalities and places in the too often hidden or ignored history in the fight for basic human rights in antebellum America."—Thomas J. Davis, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



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I've Got a Home In Glory Land
KENTUCKY1WADE IN THE WATER, CHILDREN25 DOLLARS REWARDThe subscribers will give for the apprehension and return of a colored man named THORNTON, who absconded from our employ on the 3rd or 4th day of July, inst. Said Thornton is about 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches high; stout made and of a yellow complexion; light eyes, and of good address; had on when he left a blue cloth coat, and pantaloons; boots, and a black hat.WURTS & REINHARD--Louisville Public Advertiser, July 7, 1831IT WAS JULY 3, 1831, the day before Independence Day, and Thornton Blackburn stood casually
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  • Karolyn Smardz Frost

  • Karolyn Smardz Frost is an internationally recognized archaeologist and historian based in Toronto, Canada. Her thirty-year career in multicultural program development and antiracist education has included the establishment of the Archaeological Resource Centre, Toronto's innovative learning facility. She is the executive director of the Ontario Historical Society.