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A desperate journey from slavery to freedom

I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad
By Karolyn Smardz Frost
Farrar Straus Giroux, 450 pp., with photos, $30

For Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, July 3 was Independence Day.

Dressed in their finest clothes, the attractive couple must have blended in with their surroundings on that warm Sunday in 1831, for no one took them for who they really were -- fugitive slaves on the run from their Kentucky owners. As they patiently waited for a steamboat, the Ohio River seemed all that separated them from unspeakable hardships of slavery, and an uncertain, but preferable life away from crushing oppression and the overseer's merciless lash.

"It was a desperate gamble. Their chances of discovery were very high, the consequences unthinkable," Karolyn Smardz Frost writes. "Thornton had watched, too often, as the bleeding, whipped, and defeated were brought back by slave catchers, rough men who made their livings from retrieving fugitive slaves. Women as well as men were stripped to the waist and flogged at the post in the courtyard until blood pooled at their feet."

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.

Their flight to freedom is just the beginning of this remarkable tale about two of the courageous "passengers" on the fabled Underground Railroad, and the many people along the way, both American and Canadian, both black and white, who aided their safe passage.

Faced with the prospect of Lucie being "sold down the river" -- a constant threat for slaves because parents and children, and husbands and wives were routinely auctioned away from one another -- the Blackburns devised their escape. Wearing their Sunday best, they posed as free blacks, though they couldn't even read the forged papers allowing them to travel unaccompanied.

Yet they possessed the poise and pluck to fool the white officers on the steamboat that would ferry them to freedom, on a voyage of unimaginable risk. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, a white person could detain and turn over to authorities any black person suspected of being a runaway slave.

Still, even greater peril awaited them in Detroit, where they settled for several years before making their way to Canada. In Detroit, they found a small but prosperous black community, but were also dogged by Draconian slave laws. In one of the book's most harrowing sections, a chance meeting between Thornton and Thomas Rogers, a white man for whom the former slave worked, leads to the Blackburns' arrest, and threatened return to slavery. Their capture sparked riots, and an armed, angry crowd prevented the couple's forced return to the South.

That we know the young couple will make it to Toronto doesn't lessen the chapter's emotional weight, and Frost lets recorded history of the events speak for itself. Determined to adhere to the facts, Frost rarely embellishes with grandiose pronouncements about the Blackburns' inner feelings or thoughts.

Equally welcome is the greater framework into which Frost places the Blackburns' story. Echoing throughout are the untold stories of thousands of black men and women who cast off their chains and dashed toward freedom.

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.