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Lucie and Thornton Blackburns' Legacy on the Waterfront

Feb 16, 2021

Site Specific in the nightThis image of Site Specific shows Inglenook Community High School in the background. The school sits on the site of Thornton and Lucie Blackburns' former home. It remains the only archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site ever conducted in Toronto.  

By Arti Panday

Just outside the West Don Lands, in Corktown, is Inglenook Community High School – inconspicuous at first glance but upon closer inspection, you’ll see a plaque that honours Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. The Blackburns, a couple who escaped slavery in the United States, lived on the site from 1834 to 1890 and played a significant role in assisting other freedom-seekers.   

During their time in Toronto, they became well-known members of Toronto’s African Canadian community, helping to build Little Trinity Anglican Church. In 1999, the Department of Canadian Heritage designated Thornton and Lucie Blackburn “Persons of National Historic Significance” in recognition of their generosity to the less fortunate and their lifelong resistance to slavery and racial oppression.   

A Peter Witt streetcarA 1921 Peter Witt streetcar used by the Toronto Transportation Commission, now on display at the Halton County Radial Railway Museum – Photo credit: David Arthur, 2007 

Shortly after arriving in Toronto, Thornton realized there was a need for a taxi service while working as a waiter at Osgoode Hall. After procuring blueprints for a cab from Montreal and commissioning its construction, he founded The City, Toronto’s first horse-drawn cab company in 1837. Nearly half a century later, the Toronto Transportation Commission (now called the Toronto Transit Commission) adopted the signature red and yellow from Blackburn’s box cab service for its vehicles after 1921.  

Site Specific in the daytimeClose up of Site SpecificSite Specific is a 40-metre long linear artwork that pays homage to the area’s history. The piece features an expanded focus on the Blackburns.   

Aside from the TTC’s original colours, their legacy lives on across the city and along the waterfront. Site Specific, an artwork by Toronto- and Philadelphia-based artist team Scott Eunson and Marianne Lovink, portrays a deep history of human existence in the immediate area, with an expanded focus on the era of the Blackburns.  

Waterfront Toronto commissioned the permanent art installation as part of a broader public art strategy for the West Don Lands. With a mission to link the West Don Lands to Corktown, the piece is composed of two complimentary panels of steel installed along the retaining wall at the edge of the Inglenook Community School property. The only actual human figure and the most personal human items depicted in the retaining wall, including a silver spoon, lace doily and a man driving a carriage (Thornton and his taxi cab), are artifacts from Lucie and Thornton’s residence.  

Mural of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn in George Brown College's student residenceLeap of Faith is a mural featured in the lobby of the Lucie and Thornton Conference Centre, depicting the couple’s journey to Toronto from Detroit. The piece was painted by four George Brown College students (photo credit: Adriel McPherson).

The Blackburns also shared a close relationship with George Brown, a politician and newspaper publisher with a shared interest in anti-slavery initiatives. Building on that connection, and the proximity of the pair’s historic home to George Brown College’s waterfront campus and the student residence and conference centre, the school named its conference centre after the Blackburns in 2016.  

Inside the student residence, where the conference centre is located, four students were commissioned to curate and paint a mural honouring the historical figures. Titled Leap of Faith, the mural depicts the Blackburns’ journey to Toronto. With a silhouette of Lucie and Thornton on opposite ends of the wall, the artists incorporated a glow in the dark element to represent the powerful, mysterious layer of the couple’s story.  

Read more about Lucie and Thornton’s journey to Canada and how the couple played a crucial part in making Canada a safe place for Underground Railroad refugees.