Louisville – The Blackburn Riots

I hadn’t realised just how much slavery there was in Louisville, but around 25% of the city’s population before the American Civil War were enslaved African Americans. There was also an interesting quirk of history that the state of Kentucky didn’t ratify the thirteenth amendment, which ended slavery, until 1976. Most other states had ratified it in 1865, but it was rejected in Kentucky at the time, and only corrected later on.

Louisville was also linked to the first race riots which took place in Detroit, in the State of Michigan, in 1833. Two slaves, a married couple called Thornton Blackburn and Rutha Blackburn, escaped from their Louisville owners in 1831. They were employed by different slave owners and one of those owners decided that they wanted to sell what they considered to be their possession. That an individual could be owned by another person was still accepted by many, but the case against slavery was growing.

As an aside, I hadn’t really thought about the aspect of slaves being separated in this way. The slavery in Kentucky differed a little from that in the Deep South, with the latter often having large estates and farms with huge numbers of slaves. That meant that although male and female slaves might be forced to live apart on the site, they could remain married and didn’t have quite the same risk that one would be shipped away.

So, on 3 July 1831, the couple decided to both flee Louisville and they headed to live in Detroit. The Blackburns then suffered some bad luck, as if their lives weren’t traumatic enough as it was. A man called Thomas J. Rogers from Louisville was visiting Detroit and he recognised Thornton Blackburn, although he didn’t recognise Rogers. In the days before the Internet (which I refuse to admit existed, as such a world seems almost beyond belief today….) and mass media, it must have been bad luck for someone to be noticed like this.

Rogers decided that he would wait two years before thinking to mention to the authorities in Kentucky that he had seen the Blackburns. Whether he didn’t want the slaves to be caught or whether he just forgot is a little unclear, but when he reported the situation, the slave owners wanted them back. At that point the slave catchers were called in, who had the job of recovering slaves and returning them to their owners.

So, the slave catchers did their job and the couple were arrested and thrown into a jail in Detroit. This situation caused much local anger and there were attempts to free them from jail by force and the Blackburns managed to escape to Canada. The city then faced the problem that those who wanted an end to slavery were furious that two people could be arrested in the way they were, and those who didn’t want an end to slavery were furious that the two had escaped. This caused a riot, and significant expense to the city as buildings were destroyed in what was Detroit’s first race riot. It of course wasn’t the last.

There were efforts to get the Blackburns back from Canada, but the laws had changed there so that slavery was now illegal. This meant that slaves wouldn’t be returned to the United States, which was when the country started to become a safe harbour for slaves, and it became part of the Underground Railroad.

The story continues though as Thornton Blackburn decided in the late 1830s to return to Kentucky to help his mother flee Louisville and join him in Canada. He was successful, and he managed to build a new life for himself in Toronto. He died in 1890 at the age of 78, leaving a substantial sum of money, and Rutha died five years later.