Supporting Question: Can Moving Make You Free?

Note to teachers: This case study explores self emancipation from slavery. The documents reveal attitudes towards Black Americans that were widespread during the 19th century, and may make some students uncomfortable. Teachers should consider the students they teach and consider how best to approach these resources.

Summary Historical Facts:

  • Enslavers and their agents captured people living on the continent of Africa and forced them to migrate to the North American British Colonies – including the future United States. In 1619 the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia colony. They were brought, against their will, from Luanda (in present day Angola).
  • The government of the United States of America approved of enslaved labor, empowering each state to decide if slavery were allowed there
  • Economic systems and industries in many U.S. states were dependent upon enslaved labor 
  • The United States government denied the title or rights of citizens to enslaved people born in the United States. That did not change until the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1866.
  • Enslaved people historically acted to free themselves from bondage through multiple forms of resistance including running away to escape and migrating to other jurisdictions despite incredible risks and danger
  • The United States Congress passed laws that sought to ensure that enslaved people would not be able to migrate to freedom. This included a Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The 1850 fugitive slave act required all states to return, or “extradite,” enslaved people to their enslavers, or report them to authorities
  • An international movement to end slavery, called Abolitionism, took hold in the United States in the early 1800s  
  • Additional fugitive slave laws were passed in the decades before the Civil War that sought to compel people living in states where slavery was outlawed, to return those who self-emancipated to slavery. This eventually led to increasing resentment of the power that slave holding states had on the Nation as a whole.
  • The United States Civil War (1860-65) began when 11 states where slavery was legal seceded, or withdrew their allegiance from the United States 
  • President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 signed an Executive Order called the  Emancipation Proclamation making slavery illegal in all states and territories that had seceded 
  • The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution adopted in 1865 forbid slavery in the United States
  • People of African descent born in the United States – enslaved at birth or not – became citizens with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1866

Overview narrative:

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were born and lived in Kentucky as enslaved people in the early nineteenth century. The two met in Louisville and married. When they learned that Lucie’s enslavers were planning to sell her to an enslaver in another state, the two made a plan for their self-emancipation. The Blackburns were aware of the risk of leaving their bondage. (The book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land | Karolyn Smardz Frost | Macmillan tells the complete story of the Blackburns’ actions to gain their freedom in Canada. Their actions to disguise themselves and make a plan to evade the law show evidence that they knew the Fugitive Slave Clause put them at risk for capture and return to their enslavers. The Clause was intended to address slavery, although it did not refer to those being returned as slaves but as “person[s] held to Service or Labour.”  The advertisement for the return of Thornton Blackburn is evidence of the weight of the law for returning enslaved people to enslavers, and the common practice of people actively tracking and hunting enslaved people migrating away from bondage, to gain the monetary rewards offered. 

Using the link below, read about how Thornton and Lucie Blackburn took action in the form of self-emanciapation to remove themselves from their situation from slavery to freedom: Kentucky Fugitives to Canada


The government of Upper Canada (now Ontario) refused to return Thornton Blackburn to the United States and by extension the possession of his enslaver for return to Kentucky. The Court determined that it would not extradite Thornton Blackburn or his wife Lucie, and that they could stay in Canada. The Upper Canada council ruled that the action of fugitives from foreign states fleeing slavery was not an act that would be charged by a government in Canada, and so the Blackburns would not be be subject to re-enslavement in Kentucky and charges of rioting in Michigan.

Primary Documents:

Note: While we were not able to obtain a primary source that carry’s the  Blackburn’s voice, we believe their decision to self-emancipate speaks powerfully. 


“…To this argument as to the illegality of the custody I do not attach much weight for admitting that Thornton was not committed to the custody of Mr. Wilson as Sheriff of Wayne County, still as we may presume that the Judge’s Certificate was properly given he might not be the less for the next section of the act of congress enacts that anyone who ‘shall rescue such fugitives from such claimant or his agent &c shall forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars &c’ that the custody was leal according to the law of the United States I have little doubt, the legality there is officially recognized by the requisition and it is not a subject for His Excellency’s enquiry. Upon this view of the case and considering that His Excellency in Council can only restore fugitives charged upon evidence of crimes which if proved to have been committed in the Province would submit the offender to ‘Death, Corporal punishment by pillory or whipping or by confinement at hard labour’ and considering this is a Penal Act which must not be strained beyond the literal import towards those against whom it is intended to operate; the result is that our law recognizes no such custody as that of an agent acting under a warrant for removing a fugitive slave to the Territory from which he fled, that is an offense which could not be committed within this Province in any case and therefore that His Excellency in Council is not by the Act of this Province either required or authorized to deliver up the persons demanded

I have the Honor to be, Sir, &c, 

(Signed) Robert S. Jameson, Attorney General.’”

Activities Based on Supporting Inquiry: “Did self-emancipation make Thornton and Lucie Blackburn free?

Activity 1:

The enslaver who claimed ownership of Thornton Blackburn offered a monetary reward for his return in an advertisement describing Thornton Blackburn’s appearance.  Educators should state that students are examining the historic primary source, an advertisement posted by the enslavers of Thornton Blackburn in a newspaper.

To investigate this resource, students will engage with two Project Zero Thinking Routines. Start with a See-Feel-Think-Wonder routine to allow students to record their observations, feelings, and questions about the source. Expect students to make personal, ethnical, and historical connections. Recognize that for some students, the history of slavery is intimately tied to family history. Before engaging with the resources, you want to ensure that your classroom is a space where students feel supported sharing their intellectual and emotional responses. 

After this guided response, consider trying Step In – Step Out – Step Back to consider the mindset of the author of the advertisement. Students will consider: What did the person who took out this advertisement want to happen? What does it reveal about the way he viewed the Blackburn’s, and by extension, enslaved people? As student’s step out, have them consider the conditions that might shape the attitudes and perspectives of the person who took out the advertisement. Stepping back consider what you notice about your
own perspective about the history we are exploring and the challenges we face trying to develop an understanding of the past.

Activity 2:

Perspective of the Court of Upper Canada (now Ontario, Canada)

Students will read the excerpt from the decision by the Court of Upper Canada that allowed Thornton Blackburn to stay in Canada. Students have learned that the United States enforced a Fugitive Slave Act that required extradition of enslaved people to their enslavers if captured. This document is from a court in Canada, the country that spans the northern border of  the United States. Students will be scaffolded to understand that Canada would not be bound by the laws of the United States as its own sovereign nation.

Students will use the The 4 C’s inquiry model for examining a text. Expect students to struggle as they read through the language of the document, as is common when reading an official court record. Encourage students to press on, searching for the meaning of the text they are reading. The final sentence of the text contains the most critical information, the court ruling that the court “was not …required or authorized to deliver up the persons demanded.” 

Students will address the question, “Can moving make you free?” as they consider the action of the court. Students will work in four or more  groups using  The 4 C’s system of inquiry to dig deeper into the text. Teachers may employ a variety of groups and strategies to encourage students to engage in discussion and reflection including a jigsaw or four corners activities.

Related Resource:

Olaudah Equiano, My People

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